Press Office Budget
Asked to account for the doubling of the Downing Street Press Office budget since 1997, the PMOS said that these figures had to be seen in the context of the increasing demands of a 24-hour media. There had been a very significant increase in media outlets and interest from the foreign press. Obviously Downing Street had to respond to those demands and in doing so endeavoured to be as cost effective as possible. Put to him that despite the increase in outlets the actual amount of information hadn't changed, the PMOS said that may be the case, but the demand for it was greater. More outlets simply meant more calls to the press office and more staff needed to take those calls. The PMOS said that obviously we aimed to provide an efficient and cost effective service.
Prime Minister’s Visit to Libya
Asked to comment on the timing of the Prime Minister's visit to Libya, the PMOS referred journalists to the extensive briefing on this already from those on the trip. In particular, he would draw journalists' attention to what the Deputy Prime Minister had said in the House of Commons today and to what Jim Swire had said as well. There were difficult issues, but as the IAEA had verified, the Libyan regime had, in recent months, taken significant steps towards eliminating WMD programs. If a country was making progress with this and withdrawing its support for terrorism, then it was the Prime Minister's judgement that that country should be helped on the road to rejoining the international community.
Asked where the line should be drawn between beefing up security in and around Parliament with screens and barriers and undermining the democratic process by restricting access to MPs, the Prime Minister's Official Spokesman (PMOS) said that decisions about any such issues were not a Government matter. They were for the House authorities, in consultation with the police. It was important to recognise that the changing nature of the threat was a reality for all democracies. That meant that adjustments would have to be made from time to time. In saying that, he wasn't confirming any speculation. Asked if it would be a victory for terrorism, the PMOS said that it was always necessary to strike a balance between prudent precaution and ensuring that people could continue to go about their day-to-day business. That was the reality of twenty first century democracy. We believed the public understood that.
Asked for a reaction to today's FT story suggesting that the Government was going to give up its red line on law and order, the PMOS said that there was no change to the text as set out in the White Paper last September which stated, "We will insist that unanimity remain for treaty change and in other areas of vital interest, such as tax, social security, defence, key areas of criminal procedural law and the system of Own Resources". We would continue to insist that anything which was essential for our courts system could not be changed against our wishes. We would be looking for an outcome in terms of any changes in QMV which delivered higher standards for our citizens abroad without undermining our standards at home. The Irish Presidency had been in discussion with other European member states and was due to report to the European Council later this week as to how they saw the negotiations developing during the first half of this year. We were continuing to engage constructively. People were fully aware of our position. Asked if he was implying that there was no truth in the FT story whatsoever, the PMOS said he thought that setting out a consistent position in a White Paper and underlining eight months later that that position continued to hold true showed a uniformity of approach. He repeated that we would continue to insist that anything which was essential for our courts could not be changed against our wishes. As he understood it, the draft treaty stated that the adoption of minimum rules in the EU would not stop an individual country from maintaining or introducing a higher level of protection for the rights of individuals in criminal procedure.
New Permanent Secretary
Asked to confirm the appointment of the new Cabinet Office Permanent Secretary in the light of the FT story this morning, the PMOS said that an announcement would be made shortly. It would not be today.
Asked if the Prime Minister was confident about winning the vote on the Higher Education Bill next Wednesday, the PMOS said that the Government had set out its position in the Commons. We had won the vote on Second Reading in January. We believed that our package of higher education reforms was fair. We had listened carefully to the representations that had been made. We had taken on board concerns which had been expressed. As the Bill returned to the Commons, we would obviously continue to make our case and set out our arguments because we believed they were right. Pressed further, the PMOS said that we had won the vote in January and we would continue to work hard to maintain that position. There had been genuine dialogue about this issue. We believed that the Bill was the best way forward for students in the higher education sector. This was not a pick 'n' mix Bill. It stood as a whole. Variability was a key component. The arguments had won the day in January. We would continue to work hard to ensure that the position held firm when the Bill was before the Commons next week.
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