Asked for a progress report on the military operation by Pakistan to root out members of Al Qaida on the border of Pakistan and Afghanistan, the PMOS said that as Geoff Hoon had stated this morning, this was not a UK operation and he didn't have any additional information about it. Nevertheless, we were watching events unfold with interest.
Asked if the Prime Minister would be marking the first anniversary of the Iraq war in any way, the PMOS said no. As we had been saying consistently about Iraq over recent months, the appalling acts of terror by the remnants of the Saddam regime and terrorist organisations should not overshadow the quiet progress being made on the ground in improving the lives of ordinary Iraqi people. For example, 100,000 jobs had been created, 2,300 schools had been refurbished, 600 clinics had been re-equipped, there were now over 100 newspapers being published and courts had opened. Of course that was not to suggest that everything was perfect in Iraq. Clearly it wasn't. The security situation was a continuing cause for concern and remained an area on which the Coalition was focussing much of its attention. However, it was important to remember that the Transitional Administrative Law had been signed and we were all working towards the date for the handover of power at the end of June. Tuesday's poll was perhaps the most eloquent account of what life was like in the new Iraq. Iraqi citizens were now clearly able to view the future with considerably more confidence than they had in the past.
In answer to questions about the latest development on the Government's plans for House of Lords reform, the PMOS said that it was sometimes necessary to be pragmatic in politics. It remained the Government's view that hereditary peers should no longer sit in the Lords. As Lord Falconer had said in his statement last night, we were not going to let the matter rest. Just because we were not proceeding with the Bill at this stage did not mean that we had given up on the issue. Far from it. However, it was necessary for us to be realistic about events in the Lords over recent weeks and months. For example, the handling of the Constitutional Reform Bill had been virtually unprecedented. As a result, a judgement had been taken not to proceed with the Bill and Lord Falconer had announced last night that the Party would deal with the issue in its next election manifesto.
Asked for a reaction to a report by the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) criticising the figures in the Budget, the PMOS said that financial commentators and organisations were perfectly entitled to express their views. However, it was widely acknowledged that the Chancellor's forecasting had proved accurate in the past. All Government growth forecasts were based on prudent assumptions. This year was no different.
Asked if the Prime Minister was hopeful of a breakthrough in the negotiations on the European constitution in the light of Poland's decision to back down on its objections yesterday, the PMOS said that the Government had always approached this matter in a constructive way. We had always maintained that for an EU to function at twenty-five, changes would need to be made. We had also said that it would be helpful to delineate the competencies of Governments and the competencies of the European Council and European Commission. The stumbling block at the European Council last December had related to the issue of vote-weighting and had involved Spain and Poland. There had now been a change of Government in Spain. We would have to wait and see how that might affect the dynamic of this particular discussion. He said that had also seen what the Polish Government had said. It now fell to the Irish Presidency to examine how this particular issue could be resolved. If progress could be made, then obviously people would want that to happen - the sooner the better. No one was under the impression that the European Council next week would see the resolution of these issues. However, we would have to wait and see how things panned out in terms of whether the Irish considered it worthwhile to push for a deal under their Presidency. Everyone was aware of the British Government's red lines. Equally, it was important to recognise that the issue which had been the stumbling block last December was not one where we had been central to the debate.
Asked if the Government was concerned that the five former Guantanamo Bay detainees were free to roam the streets, despite the anxieties expressed by the US authorities and British MPs, the PMOS said that he did not have anything to add to what he had said about this issue at yesterday morning's press briefing and what the Home Secretary had said in response to David Davis. These had been very complex and challenging issues for the British and US Governments to address. The fact that the discussions had been protracted underlined the complexity of those negotiations. When the five individuals had returned to the UK they had been interviewed by the police and subsequently released.
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