The Prime Minister's Official Spokesman (PMOS) drew journalists' attention to a passage in the Prime Minister's speech on crime today in which he had said, "Currently, interception of communications or intrusive surveillance can be authorized under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA), against any offender who is likely to commit a serious offence. This is defined as an offence which, if committed by an individual over 21 with no previous convictions, is likely to attract a sentence of at least three years imprisonment.
Asked if the Prime Minister held monthly meetings on immigrations and asylum because he had identified the issue as a priority and whether he would have seen papers and had any knowledge relating to what was going on in the immigration service, the PMOS confirmed that the Prime Minister held regular meetings on the key delivery areas of Government, of which asylum was, of course, one. The Prime Minster had been very focussed on this issue since the Government had come into office in 1997. We recognised that global changes in terms of transport and migration were throwing up challenges for many countries, not only the UK. That was why we had considered it imperative to look at end-to-end reform of the system and bring forward legislation several times since 1997, not least the measures going through the House at the moment to deal with appeals. Pressed as to whether the Government had known about these allegations, the PMOS said that he had no intention of getting drawn into a discussion about who knew what, when. Journalists should not over-interpret that, but see it as a desire to let the investigation take its course without prejudicing it. David Blunkett had made it absolutely clear in the House today that Home Office Ministers had not given instructions to officials to do anything other than follow proper procedures and uphold the law. That said, the allegations that had been made were serious and were, indeed, being taken seriously. Ken Sutton would have the opportunity to consider all the relevant papers that had come to light and Home Office officials were flying out to Sofia and Bucharest to investigate the matter. Mr Sutton would bring forward his report as quickly as possible, consistent with doing a thorough job.
Higher Education Bill
Asked if the Prime Minister was confident that the Government would win the vote on the Higher Education Bill tomorrow, the PMOS said that we were not complacent about it. It went without saying that the Government was working hard to carry the Bill. The arguments had won through last time, albeit with a narrow majority. No doubt it would be close again. However, we believed that the package before the House was fair and balanced and stood as a whole. It was what our universities needed if they were to have the necessary levels of funding for the twenty-first century. It was also what the country needed in terms of widening access by getting more people into university.
The Prime Minister's Official Spokesman (PMOS) advised journalists that the Prime Minister would be making a speech this afternoon on crime reduction. He would stress the importance of local councils, police and agencies making use of the new powers they had to tackle crime, including those under the Anti-Social Behaviour Act. His message to local communities was that the powers should be used. He would set out a new approach in terms of dealing with the most prolific, harmful and anti-social offenders in communities across the country. 5,000 people were estimated to be responsible for about a million crimes a year. He would announce a concerted national effort by police and criminal justice agencies to target individually the most persistent, harmful and anti-social offenders who were still criminally active. Using the national intelligence model, each of the 376 Local Crime and Disorder Reduction Partnerships, which brought together the local police force, local councils and criminal justice agencies, would each identify on average 20 offenders in their area who were committing the most crimes or who posed the greatest threat to the safety and confidence of their community. In targeting these offenders, the police would deploy all the most modern surveillance techniques and intensive intelligence gathering.
The PMOS informed journalists that Hilary Benn would be making a speech on Iraq today in which he would look forward to the transfer of authority to a new Iraqi administration on 1 July. That process was already under way. This week, the first Iraqi ministers were taking full authority over their ministries. For example, the Minister of Health had assumed full authority on Sunday. As each Department fulfilled certain criteria, it allowed Coalition advisers to pull back into a consultative role.
Asked to explain why the FCO had suspended the Civil Servant involved in the latest allegations against Beverley Hughes, but yet had not known enough about his claims to inform Home Office, the PMOS said that he had no intention of getting drawn into a discussion about who knew what, when, where. These were clearly grave allegations which were being taken seriously by the Government. The test was the Government's response to them. As David Blunkett had said this morning, Ken Sutton would be examining the claims regarding Romania and Bulgaria and he had asked officials to fly there today. In so far as those questions were relevant, he could look at them. The fast-track process in operation in Sheffield had been stopped on 8 March. All ECAA applications from Bulgaria and Romania had been suspended as of today. The investigation that Mr Sutton would carry out would look at the work that NCIS had already done in relation to this issue. Mr Blunkett had also announced that a new hotline for staff was being set up to enable them to tell Ministers where they had concerns - if, indeed they had any - about practices regarding immigration applications. He was not going to comment in detail on internal staffing procedures at the FCO. These were matters for local managers. However, as Beverley Hughes had made clear yesterday, she had only been made aware of the full contents of the e-mail last night.
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