Asked if the Prime Minister had received his annual Council Tax bill, the Prime Minister's Official Spokesman (PMOS) said he would never consider it part of his job to enquire about the Prime Minister's personal financial arrangements. Questioned on the broader issue of Council Tax rises, the PMOS said that that the Government was expecting all the figures to be in by the 18th March. The Government would announce any decision in respect of capping subsequent to that. What we made clear at the time of the CIPFA survey was that the figures were an improvement on what they had been in previous years. Ministers had underlined that they did have powers in respect of capping and we would wait to see the final figures.
Asked if the Cabinet was backing a Proportional Representation system for elections in the light of Peter Hain's comments, the PMOS said not as far as he knew. From memory he thought there was a commitment to have a look at some of the issues, but only after the forthcoming elections this year. Cabinet had not discussed it recently though.
Asked if the Prime Minister agreed with President Chirac that the EU Constitution would be finalised this year, the PMOS said that it was a statement of fact that we had been unable to reach agreement at the December Council in Brussels because of the deadlock on vote weighting. The Irish Presidency was discussing with EU partners how we could take this forward. It was apparent from the Prime Minister's discussion with the Taoiseach last week that there would be no substantial movement at the forthcoming Council but no one had expected that to be the case. The Presidency was still discussing where things stood. Clearly there had been a change of government within Spain in the last week. In answer to further questions, he said there was no need to rehearse the issues which the UK had flagged up as 'Red Lines', because they were very well known and set out in the White Paper issued last year. The PMOS pointed out that in the Council discussion under the Italian Presidency which obviously hadn't concluded successfully in December, there had been broad agreement about the issues on which we had expressed concern. The Prime Minister had said at the time that we accepted that given nothing was agreed until everything was agreed, that wasn't binding, but certainly the soundings and the points of view being raised at that time were, from our point of view, going in the right direction.
Asked why David Blunkett had made an announcement in the Commons today in place of Beverley Hughes, the PMOS said he did not know but he would not interpret any significance into that whatsoever.
The Prime Minister's Official Spokesman (PMOS) advised journalists that the Prime Minister would be meeting with the Council of Science and Technology (CST) this afternoon. The CST was the country's top independent advisory body on science issues for the Government. Earlier this morning, the Chancellor, Charles Clarke and Lord Sainsbury had launched the Government's consultation on a framework for investment in science and engineering. They had highlighted the importance of Government working together with business and research foundations to achieve the level of investment required. Representatives of the business community had attended the launch, including Astra Zeneca who had announced additional funding for new facilities at Alderley Park. The Chancellor had given a commitment to increase spending on science in real terms, faster than the rate of GDP growth in each year of the spending review period. The Chancellor had said, "A Britain equipped for the future will be a Britain that invests in science". Today showed the Prime Minister and the Chancellor showing their commitment to science.
Spain/Iraq/War on Terror
Asked if the Prime Minister had urged the Prime Minister-elect of Spain, Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, not to pull Spanish troops out of Iraq, the PMOS said that as we had told journalists yesterday, we had no intention of briefing on the detail of the telephone call between the Prime Minister and Mr Zapatero. They had had a wide-ranging discussion and a warm and friendly conversation. Given the fact that Mr Zapatero's view had formed part of his election manifesto, his words yesterday should have come as no surprise. However, it was important to look exactly, and fully, at what he had said, rather than base assumptions on partial reports. He had said, "If there is no change by virtue of which the UN takes charge of the situation and the occupiers give up the political leadership, the Spanish troops will come home, and the deadline for their presence there is 30 June". Obviously it wasn't for us to analyse the statements given by the incoming Spanish Government. Any decisions were obviously for them. However, it should be pointed out that a plan was already in place to hand over power to a transitional government at the beginning of July. The new transitional Administrative Law, which had been signed last week, had clearly been an important step forward. Asked if he was indicating that there was a strong possibility that Spain might decide not to withdraw its troops from Iraq, the PMOS said he was simply making the point that Mr Zapatero's statement obviously had some qualifications built into it. It was not for us to predict the decision-making processes of the Spanish Government. All he was pointing out was that Mr Zapatero had been highlighting the importance of the UN and also the importance of the 'occupiers' - the Coalition - in giving up political leadership. The timetable for the handover of power was the beginning of July. In the end, these were decisions for the Spanish Government to take and we would respect whatever judgements they made.
Defence Select Committee Report/Clare Short
Asked if the Prime Minister accepted the Defence Select Committee's conclusion in its report on Iraq that Clare Short had impeded the preparations for post-conflict Iraq through her stance on the war, the PMOS said that Ms Short had been a member of the Cabinet which had taken the decision to engage in military action to uphold UN Resolutions. The Department for International Development (DfID) had played an important role in terms of the reconstruction effort in Iraq. No one was pretending that the post-conflict situation was easy. In the first instance, it was widely accepted that some of the immediate difficulties had been born of the fact that military success had come more quickly than many had predicted. As the Prime Minister had said in the past, Ms Short had done a good job when she had been in Government. In answer to further questions, the PMOS said that we would study the report in detail, as Adam Ingram had said in interviews this morning. If there were any lessons to be learned, we would obviously take them on board. It was important for people to recognise that the immediate post-conflict situation had been difficult. We had always acknowledged that we hadn't been able to get everything right. Equally everyone was working hard to provide for a more prosperous future for the Iraqi people and, most importantly, to ensure that Iraq was managed for the Iraqi people by the Iraqi people.
Asked if the Prime Minister had spoken to Beverley Hughes recently, the PMOS said not as far as he was aware. Asked if he felt that she was in full control of her department, the PMOS said yes. He also believed, as we had said consistently, that she was doing a difficult job well. If he was being asked about today's Daily Mail story, it was important to be clear what it had been referring to. It had not been about asylum or immigration per se. Rather, it had focussed on citizenship applications for people already living in the UK without immigration restrictions. As the Home Office had made clear both last night and this morning, they did not accept the suggestion that people had been 'nodded through' without any checks being made on them. Only one element of case consideration had been suspended. All the key checks, such as police criminal records checks, standard immigration checks and, where necessary, further security checks, had been carried out. It was also important to recognise that there had been an element of discretion regarding residency checks for some time.
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