Asked about the Prime Minister's speech tomorrow, the Prime Minister's Official Spokesman (PMOS) said that it would be a rounded speech dealing with Iraq, WMD proliferation and international security issues. Asked the purpose of the speech, the PMOS said that there had been a lot of focus on all these issues in recent months, not just in relation to Iraq, but in a wider context as well. Tomorrow's speech would provide an opportunity to bring some of these strands together.
Asked if anything had come out of the Prime Minister's meeting with Prime Minister Berlusconi in Rome today, the PMOS said that as he understood it, a joint declaration had been issued.
Asked if an announcement relating to the Middle East peace process was about to be made in the light of the number of meetings with foreign leaders and ministers from the region that had taken place this week and would continue to take place into the next, the PMOS said that the meetings were indicative of a desire on our part to try to move things forward and make progress. The sequence of visitors to the UK should not necessarily be seen as co-ordinated or presage some major announcement.
Lord Woolf/Constitutional Reforms
Asked if the Government was intending to ignore the criticisms expressed by the Lord Chief Justice, Lord Woolf, regarding plans for a supreme court and changes to the asylum system, the PMOS said that Lord Woolf was entitled to set out his views. However, the Government remained committed to its programme of reform for the reasons that had been set out. It was perfectly legitimate for someone to contribute to a debate and for others to disagree with him. That was where we were. Put to him that Lord Woolf's criticisms should be considered more serious than simply a contribution to a debate, the PMOS said that we would, of course, listen carefully to what the Lord Chief Justice had to say. But on the issue of asylum, for example, we were not proceeding in a way which was incompatible with our various legal obligations. We believed it was absolutely right for us to tackle the whole appeals process, which often saw cases being drawn out over the course of a year, if not longer. That could not possibly be in the interests of an asylum system which everyone wanted to see have integrity. Put to him that the Lord Chief Justice's criticisms were more fundamental than that, the PMOS said that the Department for Constitutional Affairs (DCA) had issued a statement last night making clear that none of the powers enjoyed by the current Law Lords would be lost and that a separation of powers was vital to maintain public confidence. Put to him that the Law Lords would no longer be members of the House of Lords, which would mean that they would lose their legislative role, the PMOS said that the independence of the judiciary would be upheld. The proposals had been brought forward only after extensive consultation. That was not to suggest, however, that every single member of the judiciary agreed with them. Nevertheless, we believed they were right for the reasons that had been set out. In answer to further questions, the PMOS said he realised that journalists were trying to get him to ratchet up the story on what was a comparatively slow political news day by inviting him to up his rhetoric and engage in some sort of war of words. However, he would have to decline the kind invitation. Asked how we would respond to the criticisms, the PMOS said by continuing with our programme of reform.
Parliamentary Ombudsman/Attorney General
Asked if a letter had been sent to the Parliamentary Ombudsman explaining why we would not be giving her a copy of the Attorney General's legal advice on the Iraq conflict, the PMOS said not yet. Put to him that a letter was supposed to have been sent to her forty-eight hours ago, the PMOS said that contacts with the Parliamentary Ombudsman were continuing. At this stage, however, no letter had been issued.
PM visit to Rome
The Prime Minister's Official Spokesman (PMOS) advised journalists that the Prime Minister was in Rome today to meet with Prime Minister Berlusconi. This was the latest in a series of contacts between the two leaders. Today was an opportunity for them to look forward to the European Council later this month. They had last met at the previous European Council in Brussels.
Lord Woolf/Constitutional Reforms
Asked for a reaction to criticisms expressed last night by the Lord Chief Justice, Lord Woolf, regarding the Government's proposals for a new Supreme Court and changes to the asylum system, the PMOS said that Lord Woolf was entitled to put his views, and we would, of course, listen carefully to what he had to say. However, the Government was entitled to take the action it thought was necessary in order both to modernise our constitution and to reform our public services. We believed that the reforms we were making were right. On asylum, for example, everyone recognised the fact that the appeals process at the current time was too long and too complex. It was therefore important to examine how to streamline a system which, at the moment, saw cases often being drawn out over the course of a year, if not longer. Asked if Downing Street believed that the Lord Chief Justice had misunderstood the principle of the rule of law, the PMOS repeated that Lord Woolf was perfectly entitled to express his opinion. However, we believed that the measures we were putting in place were fair and proportionate and would be fully compliant with human rights legislation.
Asked if the issue of MMR had been raised in Cabinet this morning, the PMOS said only in the context of a discussion on GM issues in which the importance of the primacy of science had been underlined. Asked to explain the 'primacy of science' argument, the PMOS said that in relation to MMR, for example, it was clear that on one side of the scales stood a vast body of scientific opinion which stated that the vaccine was safe. On the other side, however, stood one research report - about which we now knew even more - which claimed otherwise. The important thing was not to assume an immediate equivalence between two differing points of view when that was not borne out by the overall weight of opinion.
Asked for a reaction to David Kay's latest comments suggesting that he and others had been taken in by Iraqi dissident claims of WMD, the PMOS said that the Prime Minister would be making a speech about Iraq tomorrow in which he would make a more rounded argument relating to proliferation issues and international security threats. In that context, he would obviously address the issue of WMD in his speech.
Six-Term School Year
Asked if the Prime Minister was looking forward to a six-term school year, the PMOS said that he hadn't heard the Prime Minister express a view on the matter. The Department for Education was continuing the debate. Put to him that the Education Secretary had said on the radio this morning that he had approved the idea and had told LEAs that they could go ahead with it, the PMOS pointed out that this did not automatically mean that all schools across the country would suddenly switch to six terms. Asked if Downing Street would like to see the scheme operate nationally, the PMOS said we believed that it was important to extend choice, but local decision-making was obviously essential in such matters.
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