The Prime Minister's Official Spokesman (PMOS) updated journalists on the issue of British troop deployments to Kosovo. Since there were some formal Parliamentary matters which we had been unable to address in time in terms of Written Ministerial Statements, Geoff Hoon had written today to his Opposition counterparts and the Chair of the Defence Select Committee informing them of the request from NATO for the deployment of the Operational Reserve Force. The responsibility for that role rotated between the UK, US, Germany and Italy. At the moment it rested with the UK. The MoD had said that we would be deploying the UK Ready Battalion, currently the Spearhead Land Element provided by the First Battalion of the Royal Gloucester, Berkshire and Wiltshire Regiment. As part of the NATO force, there were currently 260 Fusiliers in Kosovo. Asked how many troops would be sent, the PMOS said that we were still in discussion with NATO about precise numbers. The Operational Readiness Force was a high capability reserve force of 750 individuals. The approximate number he had given this morning was around the 500 mark, but we would have to see. Asked if these troops were on constant standby, the PMOS said that this was a dedicated reserve force for the Balkans. The troops could be deployed to theatre within four days if required. Clearly they were in a high state of readiness to respond to any escalation. Their presence had not been requested over the past few years. However, in the light of recent events in Mitrovica, the situation had obviously changed. Asked if the troops were currently UK-based, the PMOS said yes.
Asked for a reaction to the Court of Appeal judgement today overturning the appeal by the Home Secretary against SIAC's ruling to release "M" from Belmarsh, the PMOS said that we accepted the judgement. He pointed out that twelve out of thirteen appeals had been won by the Government. "M" was obviously the exception. That rounded picture showed that the law had been worthwhile and useful and that the Home Secretary had used his powers appropriately and proportionately. When these powers had been enacted, we had wanted to ensure that there was a robust system which would allow for due legal scrutiny of the decisions and certifications made by the Home Secretary. That was why the courts had been given the power to overturn the decisions made by him. That had obviously happened today and we accepted it.
In the light of the serious violence in Kosovo over the last couple of days, which had centred around Mitrovica and had then spread with attacks by the Albanian majority on the Serbian minority, the Prime Minister's Official Spokesman (PMOS) said that Geoff Hoon had received a request this morning from the Supreme Allied Commander Europe (SACEUR), General James Jones, asking us to provide forces, since the UK was currently the NATO reserve for Kosovo. That request was being considered by the Chief of Defence Staff, Sir Mike Walker. An announcement would be made on that shortly. Asked if these troops were already in the region, the PMOS said that we had a small force there as part of our NATO responsibilities. These would be additional forces, 500 plus. It went without saying that we took our peacekeeping responsibilities in Kosovo seriously. Asked to clarify the process through which the decision could be made, the PMOS said that the Chief of Defence Staff was considering the request, with the MoD consulting with whoever was appropriate, including Downing Street. It would be an addition to an existing deployment. Asked if the request was problematic in the light of the ongoing British military presence in Iraq, the PMOS said that the Government would ensure that any deployments which had to be made would be consistent with our other obligations elsewhere in the world.
War on Terror
Asked if the Prime Minister believed that the level of threat to the UK had changed in the year since the beginning of the Iraq war, the PMOS said that the level of threat had always been high. Pressed as to whether it was higher today than it had been before the Iraq war, the PMOS said that it wasn't our policy to give full details about the level of the terrorist threat at any one point in time. If the Government felt it necessary to take a particular course of action to counter the threat, as we had done with Heathrow last year, then we would do so and alert the public. It was important to recognise that the UK had been at risk both before September 11 and after. The threat was clearly still present and real. We were working flat out with the security services and the police to do all we could to protect Britain. As Jack Straw had pointed out this morning, countries that had not supported the war had also found themselves subjected to appalling terrorist atrocities. We shouldn't kid ourselves about the nature of Al Qaida and this sort of Muslim fundamentalism. These people stood for complete hatred of the West and all its values. They considered those who did not support them 100% as opposing them.
Asked for a reaction to the letter from the US Embassy in London regarding four of the five former British detainees at Guantanamo Bay, as reported in today's Sun, the PMOS said he was not going to comment on the letter per se. This had been a unique circumstance. The issues in question had been discussed at length and in detail at the highest level between the British and US Governments. It was a very complex matter. The decisions had clearly not been taken lightly. Very careful consideration had been given to all the issues that you would expect. The former detainees who had returned the UK recently had all gone through the appropriate police procedures under the Terrorism Act on arrival. They had been interviewed by the Met's anti-terrorist officers, following close liaisons between the police and the CPS. There were clearly still four individuals who were detained at Guantanamo Bay. Discussions about them were continuing. Asked if the letter from the US Embassy had come as a surprise to the Government, the PMOS said that he had no intention of getting drawn into a discussion about that particular piece of correspondence. The fact that discussions had taken place over the course of six months between the UK and US Governments should be seen as an indication of the seriousness with which these complex and challenging issues had been addressed. Asked if he was suggesting that the discussions should be seen as an indication of the serious crimes in which the four former detainees were alleged to have been involved, the PMOS said he was simply pointing to the difficulties surrounding the issues. The Government would do whatever it thought was necessary to protect the UK. That would be done with due recognition for the rights of individuals.
Asked for a reaction to the Foreign Affairs Select Committee report, published today, on the Government's co-operation into its inquiry on Iraq, the PMOS said that we would obviously consider the report carefully. The Government took the work of Select Committees very seriously and attached great importance to the scrutiny which they brought to the Executive. He pointed out that the Government had co-operated fully with the FAC's Iraq inquiry. The Foreign Secretary had appeared twice before the Committee, including a private session, and had spent five hours briefing them. The report had only been published today and we would take time to look at it carefully. However, we believed that the relationship between the Government and the Select Committees was a co-operative one.
Civil Service Redundancies
Asked if the Prime Minister would be willing to meet Civil Service union leaders to explain the thinking behind the proposed 40,000 redundancies in the Civil Service as announced in yesterday's Budget, the PMOS said it was important for the management of any organisation, particularly one as large as the Civil Service, to seek to ensure that the maximum efficiency savings were achieved consistent with delivering, and not jeopardising, the necessary services for the public. If, in doing that, it meant we were able to release extra resources for frontline services, he thought the public would welcome it and consider it to be a good thing. In terms of redundancies at the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) and the integration of the Inland Revenue and Customs and Excise, no one was talking about immediate compulsory redundancies. This was about reducing the number of posts in the first instance. Asked if the reduction in the numbers of staff could be brought about simply through 'natural wastage', the PMOS said that natural wastage, recruitment freezes and the like were all issues likely to be looked at. No one should underestimate the Government's desire to ensure that as much money as possible from the taxpayer went into schools, hospitals and other frontline resources wherever it was needed. Asked about the possibility of the number of job losses going above the 40,000 mark, the PMOS said that we would be looking for the maximum efficiency gains consistent with ensuring that Departments were able to carry out their core functions. By 2007/8, we expected to see an annual efficiency gain of £20bn.
Constitutional Reform Bill/Lords Reform
Asked if Lords reform had come up at Cabinet, the PMOS said yes. He drew journalists' attention to the fact that there were two Motions down on the Lords Order Paper today. As he understood it, the Lords would discuss how to proceed with the Constitutional Reform Bill on Monday. The two Motions showed that the Bill would continue in the Upper Chamber and that it would be examined by a Select Committee. The discussions which we had said had been ongoing through the usual channels had now concluded satisfactorily. The Government was content about the way the issue would be handled. We had never been opposed to the scrutiny of legislation. Without pre-empting the discussion on Monday, we now believed that it should be possible for the Bill to be delivered in a sensible way. Asked if it was now more likely that we would shortly see the House of Lords Bill, the PMOS said that an announcement on the Bill would be made soon. He confirmed it would not be this week.
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