Asked about the Prime Minister's meeting this afternoon with the Israeli Deputy Prime Minister, Ehud Olmert, the Prime Minister's Official Spokesman (PMOS) said that the Prime Minister had met with a number of key figures from the Middle East in recent days. However, the sequence of visitors to the UK should not necessarily be seen as co-ordinated or presage some new initiative. Rather, the meetings underlined a desire on all sides to try to reinvigorate the peace process. That was the context of today's meeting.
Constitutional Reform Bill
Asked if there had been any movement on the Constitutional Reform Bill following the defeat in the Lords on Monday evening, the PMOS said that discussions were continuing through the usual channels, and within Government, in terms of how we should move forward. What had happened on Monday was almost unprecedented. The Hare Coursing Bill in 1975 was the last time such a situation had occurred. Since the discussions that were going on had yet to conclude, he was unable to give journalists the clarity they wanted at this stage. Asked to comment on some of the options suggested in today's papers, the PMOS said that he had read a number of different scenarios in this morning's press. However, as things stood, he was unable to state unequivocally what was going happen. Asked if the Government had abandoned the idea of re-introducing the Bill immediately into the Commons, the PMOS said that there were a number of different ways you could approach this issue. The Government's overriding concern was to get the Bill on the statute book. Following the events of Monday night, we had to consider carefully what was likely to be the best way to achieve that.
Asked if any Government representative was due to meet the England Cricket Board (ECB), the PMOS said that the Foreign Office and the DCMS had been having regular and constructive meetings with the ECB. Those talks would continue. We understood the difficult position in which the ECB found themselves regarding the tour. However, the Government did not possess any legal powers to stop it going ahead. It was a decision for the ECB to make. Jack Straw had written to them on 22 January and had said, "I draw your attention to the appalling human rights situation in Zimbabwe and the resulting isolation of that country's government by the international community. The situation in Zimbabwe is bleak and is deteriorating". He had also written that it was the Government's view that the overall situation there was worse today than it had been during the cricket World Cup. He had also underlined that "the decision whether or not to tour, must be one for you and your colleagues in the England and Wales Cricket Board to make". That remained the Government's position.
Asked if the Prime Minister had been made aware that Steve Moxon had written two 'strongly worded e-mails of an anti-Muslim nature' to the BBC prior to saying in the Commons today that he had no intention of meeting him, the PMOS said that he did not intend to comment on the reported e-mails. If Mr Moxon's employer was handling the issue, it was not unreasonable for the Prime Minister or Ministers to say that due process should be allowed to take its course. Asked if the Prime Minister had received a request from Mr Moxon to meet him, the PMOS said not as far as he was aware, other than the invitation extended to him at PMQs today. Asked if there were any circumstances in which he would meet him, the PMOS said that it was important to be clear what this issue was about. Some concerns had been raised by Mr Moxon and they had been taken seriously by the Government. Beverley Hughes had made a Statement to Parliament on Monday saying that there would be an investigation into the procedures used at Sheffield. That was ongoing. In those circumstances, it was appropriate for due process to continue both in terms of that investigation and the handling of any personnel issues. On the former, the Immigration and Nationality Directorate (IND) should be allowed to carry out its work. On the latter, most people would agree that it was right for personnel issues to be handled by the employers and not by Ministers.
Asked to comment on the letter which Geoff Hoon had reportedly sent to the Prime Minister and Tom Baldwin at the Times, the PMOS repeated what he had said about the matter this morning. Put to him, jokingly, that there was a 'prima facie' case for a leak inquiry, the PMOS said that discussions would continue between Departments and the Treasury in the usual way.
Asked if Downing Street agreed with the International Cricket Council's (ICC) ruling that it was the responsibility of the Government to decide whether the England cricket team should tour Zimbabwe later in the year, the Prime Minister's Official Spokesman (PMOS) said that the Government had been in contact with the England Cricket Board (ECB). As he understood it, the ECB was reflecting on these issues at the moment and would reach a decision shortly. Put to him that the ICC had suggested that one way for the ECB to withdraw from the Test Series against Zimbabwe without being penalised was if the British Government openly and actively discouraged them from going, the PMOS said that we had been in discussion with the ECB about this matter. There had also been correspondence between the ECB and the Foreign Office, the details upon which the ECB was currently reflecting. Asked what Downing Street's view on the matter was, the PMOS said that we had underlined to the ECB the seriousness of the situation in Zimbabwe and our serious concerns about the Mugabe regime. They were now reflecting on our advice. This was part of a discussion process which would lead to a decision being taken by the ECB. Asked if we would take the decision rather than leave it to the ECB - thereby enabling them to avoid a fine, the PMOS said that the Government had given advice but the final decision was for the ECB. Asked if the Government would offer compensation for any financial losses that the ECB might incur, the PMOS said that, as he understood it, compensation had not been offered.
British Embassy in Kuwait
Asked to confirm reports that the British Embassy in Kuwait had been shut down for three weeks due to a financial crisis, the PMOS said that we had checked the story with the Foreign Office who had said that the Embassy would not, in fact, be closing down. Put to him that Consular services at the Embassy would be affected, the PMOS said that, as he understood it, the story had been about the Embassy shutting down. That would not be happening. Asked if the Government would accept that funding for the Embassy was inadequate, the PMOS said that thanks to the way the Government was managing the economy, we were able to invest record sums into our public services. No one could be in any doubt that all Departments, including the Foreign Office, had been given generous settlements in the last Spending Review. There wasn't an unlimited pot of money, which was why it was important for people and Departments to manage their budgets effectively and work within the settlements that had been provided.
Asked what the Prime Minister hoped to achieve from his continuing meetings with the Northern Ireland parties and his meeting with the Taoiseach tomorrow, the PMOS said that the Good Friday Agreement was currently under review. The Prime Minister was touching base with the parties because he wanted to hear their views on how matters were progressing, as well as their ideas as to how to move the process forward. As he had told the House two weeks ago in answer to a question from David Trimble, we wanted to see an end to all paramilitary activity - a statement which had been amplified by the Northern Ireland Secretary, Paul Murphy, this morning. The Prime Minister was meeting the Taoiseach tomorrow not only to discuss Northern Ireland issues, but also European matters in the light of the fact that Ireland currently held the EU Presidency and he wanted to look ahead to the forthcoming European Council in Brussels with the Taoiseach.
Asked for a reaction to today's Times story suggesting that the Defence Secretary had written to the Prime Minister to complain about proposed Treasury cuts to the defence budget, the PMOS said that the next spending review would be in the summer, as was well known. This was not the first time that stories about departmental budgets had appeared in advance of a spending review. It seemed to be a fact of political life. However, in relation to the MoD's budget, it was important to remember that, far from there being cuts as had been suggested last night, the 2002 spending review was delivering the biggest increases in defence spending for twenty years. For example, we had met the costs of Iraq, Afghanistan, Kosovo, Sierra Leone and the war on terror. We would continue to ensure that our armed forces were equipped to do the difficult job that the Government asked of them. Asked to clarify apparently differing views regarding the MoD's spending limit, the PMOS said that he had no intention of engaging in a public debate about departmental spending negotiations, as he did not think it was appropriate to do so. It was right for those discussions to take place and for announcements to be made in the usual way. Simply because stories appeared in newspapers did not mean that we should change our practices.
Asked if the Government had decided what steps to take in the light of Monday's defeat in the Lords on the Constitutional Reform Bill, the PMOS said that confidential discussions were continuing through the usual channels, as part of the Parliamentary process, about the way forward. What had happened on Monday was unprecedented. The Hare Coursing Bill in 1975 was the last time such a situation had occurred. In answer to further questions as to how the Government might proceed in the light of today's Times story, the PMOS said that he had seen a number of different scenarios in the press. At this stage we were in discussion mode. Since they had not yet concluded, he was unable to give the clarity journalists wanted.
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