Local Government Finance Reform
Asked the current position on local government finance reform, the Prime Minister's Official Spokesman (PMOS) said that the Balance of Funding review was currently underway and was due to report later this year. Asked if the Prime Minister had ruled out the idea of introducing a local income tax, the PMOS said that the Prime Minister had expressed his view recently both in the House of Commons and in an interview with the News of the World. His words spoke for themselves.
Asked if the Queen or the Palace had been consulted prior to today's announcement concerning the renaming of the Crown Prosecution Service, the PMOS told journalists to check with the Home Office. Asked if the Prime Minister had bottled out of his weekly Audience with the Queen later today because she had not been consulted about this matter, the PMOS said he thought that this briefing was rapidly 'drifting into the arena of the unwell'. He pointed out that the Prime Minister's Audience with the Queen did not necessarily take place on the same day of the week every week, but was arranged around their respective diaries.
Asked if the Prime Minister believed that the attacks in Iraq today were indicative of Sunni/Shi'ite hostility, the PMOS said it would appear that terrorists or Saddam loyalists were seeking to foment religious strife within Iraq and also to derail the political progress that was being made. It was certainly no coincidence that the attacks had come the day after the IGC had reached agreement on the Transitional Law which safeguarded religious freedom. Nor was it any accident that they had occurred on the day that Iraqi Shi'ites were marking the Ashoura festival for the first time in years, as they had been unable to do under the tyranny of Saddam Hussein. The challenge for everyone was ensure that that the perpetrators did not succeed. We were determined that they would not. Asked if Downing Street was concerned that we might be seeing the result of internal tensions in Iraq rather than outright terrorism as today's attacks would appear to suggest, the PMOS said the important thing was that the different tribes and religious traditions were able to form an administration. What had happened so far was a good indication that the will on the part of the Iraqi people was there and that such a thing was possible. It was obviously important for everyone to continue on that path. The political progress that had been made yesterday with the agreement on the Transitional Law should not be ignored. Asked if he would agree that internal tension was the inevitable result of religious freedom in Iraq, the PMOS said that the perpetrators of today's attacks would like that to be the outcome. However, it was not right to suggest that its genesis was the Sunni/Shi'ite issue. That was the fundamental difference. It was terrorism, not 'civil war'.
In response to reports this afternoon that David Trimble had withdrawn from the Good Friday Agreement review, the PMOS informed journalists that Mr Trimble would be meeting the Prime Minister tomorrow in Downing Street where, no doubt, today's developments would be discussed. The meeting had been scheduled before today. Asked if the Prime Minister would be seeing other Northern Ireland politicians, the PMOS said that the Prime Minister was in regular contact with all the key players, as you would expect.
The Prime Minister's Official Spokesman (PMOS) drew journalists' attention to the publication today of the latest police service strength figures for England and Wales. He noted that police numbers had reached a new all time high of 138,000 - an increase of 11,000 since 1997. There had also been an increase of 6,000 between December 2002 and December 2003, the highest annual rise on record. That took the total number of the extended police family, including community support officers and special constables, to more than 212,000. In his speech to the National Reassurance Policing conference today, the Home Secretary would also announce £5 million to fund the reassurance policing programme. He would say that although "crime continues to fall and the chance of being a victim of crime is at its lowest for 20 years, surveys show that 64 per cent of people believe crime has increased". It was clearly important to continue to work hard not only to try to make people safer, but allow them to feel safer as well.
Asked the Prime Minister's reaction to the attacks in Iraq this morning, the PMOS said that the Prime Minister condemned them absolutely. They would only serve to strengthen the resolve of the Coalition, the international community and the Iraqi Governing Council (IGC) to continue on the journey towards political and economic progress. It was no accident that the attacks had come the day after the IGC had reached agreement on the Transitional Law which safeguarded religious freedom. Nor was it any accident that they had occurred on the day that Iraqi Shi'ites were marking the Ashoura festival for the first time in years as they had been unable to do under the tyranny of Saddam Hussein. The perpetrators were clearly trying to stop political progress, stop expressions of religious freedom and stop the journey towards a more democratic and prosperous country. They did not want to acknowledge the fact that Saddam Hussein's years of bloody tyranny were over. They did not want progress. They stood for nothing, apart from their own hatred and bigotry.
Iraq/Attorney General’s advice
Asked if Downing Street considered the Attorney General's legal advice on the Iraq conflict to constitute a Cabinet paper in the light of today's Guardian report and information from the Parliamentary Ombudsman's office stating that she was able to request papers for examination unless they were Cabinet papers, the PMOS said he thought it would be useful to give some background to the story today. A Guardian journalist had made a request to the Government for the Attorney General's advice. The request had been declined because of exemptions to the Code on Access to Government Information - those exemptions being 2 (internal policy advice) and 4 (legal professional privilege). We were confident that we had acted according to the Code. The journalist concerned had then asked us to review the decision that had been taken. We had done so, but had subsequently upheld it. The journalist had then approached the Parliamentary Ombudsman, Ann Abraham, who had asked us for the relevant papers. However, because of our absolute confidence that the Attorney General's advice was covered by legal professional privilege, under that exemption we would not be disclosing it to her. Put to him that the Ombudsman was not asking for the disclosure of the papers on the grounds of freedom of information but under her powers as Parliamentary Ombudsman, the PMOS said he did not believe that the position would be any different.
Asked if the Prime Minister believed that Clare Short should remain a member of the Privy Council, the PMOS said that he had nothing to add to what we had been saying about this matter over recent days. Questioned as to whether there was a timetable for a review of Ms Short's Privy Council membership, the PMOS said that if there was anything further to say about this issue, journalists would obviously be informed. However, that should not be interpreted as a hint that something was about to happen. The Government was getting on with the important business of improving Britain's public services. The Home Secretary's announcement this morning about the rise in police numbers was obviously an important development in that regard. That was our focus.
Asked if the Butler Committee would continue with its Inquiry, the PMOS said yes. As they had explained in their statement issued last night, "The Committee must start by looking at structures, processes and systems before considering which, if any, individuals should be held accountable". Asked if the Prime Minister was intending to reply to yesterday's letter from the Leader of the Opposition informing him of his party's withdrawal, the PMOS said that the Prime Minister was a very courteous man and would no doubt respond in due course. Asked if Downing Street would publish the letter in the same way that the Opposition Leader had published his yesterday, the PMOS said that it was our usual practice to leave it up to the recipient of a Prime Ministerial letter to decide whether they wished to publicise it or not.
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