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.
Questioned about the timescale for applying the European Constitution were a deal to be agreed by June 17, the Prime Minister's Official Spokesman (PMOS) said that while we wanted to make progress as soon as possible, these matters were not totally in our control. First, we would need to obtain an agreement. Secondly, even if that were to happen by June 17, it would be necessary to format it into draft EU legislation before we were able introduce it as a Parliamentary Bill. Both processes would obviously take some time. That said, as the Prime Minister had had made clear in his Statement to the House this afternoon, we hoped that progress would be made as quickly as possible because it was important for a Europe at twenty-five to work efficiently.
Questioned about the position of Beverley Hughes, the PMOS said that her position had not changed since this morning, last week and even the week before when he had underlined the Prime Minister's confidence in her. Asked if the Prime Minister would continue to support her were there to be further revelations about the way she had handled her immigration brief, the PMOS said that it wasn't his policy to answer hypothetical questions. Questioned about the latest allegations, the PMOS said that the BRACE system or similar systems, as a method for clearing backlogs, had been applied by successive Administrations. Indeed, all Governments, going back at least as far as the 1980s, had had to address this problem and had followed similar procedures. Ms Hughes's actions had therefore been justified. Asked to explain the difference between this case and Steve Moxon's allegations relating to the IND in Sheffield, the PMOS said that as he understood it, the measures to tackle the backlog of applications in Sheffield were being applied to new cases, whereas the cases relating to the allegations over the weekend were older.
Asked if it was within David Blunkett's remit to say whether Beverley Hughes would remain in her post, the PMOS said that Ms Hughes continued to retain the confidence of the Prime Minister in the same way she had last week, the week before and the week before that. He believed that she was doing a difficult job well and should be given credit for the achievements on asylum which had been notched up in the past year. Asked if the Prime Minister believed that it was time for Ms Hughes to be removed from her post, the PMOS said that as the Home Office had made clear yesterday, the BRACE system, as a method for clearing backlogs, had been applied by successive Administrations. Indeed, all Governments, going back at least as far as the 1980s, had had to address this problem and had followed similar procedures. Ms Hughes, herself, had told Parliament last week that, "Over the years it has been accepted that making decisions on the basis of the information already available to the caseworker can sometimes be justified as a means of tackling backlogs. This is because long backlogs make immigration controls less effective, as it becomes more difficult to take action against people whose applications have been stuck in the system". Asked if that meant that anyone applying for immigration status, and who had been in the UK for only a few months, could apply without fear of any checks being made on them, the PMOS said that it was important to be clear what the BRACE system was about. It used information provided with the application in order to make the final judgement. It was not a rubber-stamping exercise. Cases continued to be refused under this system too.
Questioned as to whether the Prime Minister would be meeting Prime Minister Berlusconi of Italy this week in the light of reports of a further Troika meeting between the UK, France and Germany, the PMOS said that he was not aware of any plans to do so at this stage.
Asked if the Prime Minister would play a role in the festivities to mark the centenary of the Entente Cordiale between France and the UK in the light of the forthcoming departures of Prime Minister Miller of Poland and Prime Minister Aznar of Spain, the PMOS said that as the Prime Minister had made clear on many occasions, he valued his relationship with his European partners in different formats and in different ways and he continued to work with them all. For example, last week the Prime Minister had visited Spain and Portugal before meeting other European leaders at the European Council in Brussels.
Asked if the Prime Minister had 'closed the door' on the possibility of holding a referendum on the European Constitution, the PMOS said that as we had made clear, we believed that the issue should be treated in exactly the same way as other similar treaties in the past, such as Maastricht. They had been dealt with through the Parliamentary process and that was how the European Constitution should be handled. Asked if he was ruling out a referendum, the PMOS said he thought it odd that the question was being asked in a way that implied something new. We had said consistently that we believed the issue should be dealt with in the same way that other similar matters had been dealt with in the past - through the Parliamentary process. Asked if it 'would be' dealt with in the same way, the PMOS underlined that the position had been made absolutely crystal clear. He asked the journalist which part of the word "no" he didn't understand. Put to him that there had been some suggestion that the Prime Minister had been urged to give way on this issue, the PMOS said that he would refer the journalist to his previous answer and also to comments about this issue made by the Prime Minister and others. The answer was 'no'.
Asked if Downing Street agreed with General Sir Mike Jackson's view, expressed in his Frost interview yesterday, about the importance of a clear political authority in setting up a European army, the PMOS said that the General's comments had been nothing out of the ordinary in the light of the ongoing discussions about a European Rapid Reaction Force. His remarks clearly tied in with our thinking. Asked if he was indicating that the General was, in fact, "on our side", the PMOS said that the General was always on our side, a fact about which he was very glad.
Higher Education Bill
Asked if the Prime Minister was planning any meetings with backbench MPs in advance of the vote on the Higher Education Bill on Wednesday, the PMOS said that the Prime Minister continued to be prepared to hold whatever meetings were necessary. However, there were no specific plans in his diary to meet backbenchers at this stage. The Prime Minister continued to believe that this was a very important piece of legislation. That said, we were in no way complacent about the vote. We recognised that it would, once again, be tight. Nevertheless, he stood ready to argue the case as to why we needed top-level university education in this country that was capable of competing with the best in the world. Asked if any further concessions might be given to rebel MPs in the run-up to the vote, the PMOS said that the principles of the Bill remained clear and had been - and would continue to be - set out consistently by the Prime Minister and other Ministers when making the case for it.
Asked if the Prime Minister was intending to meet with backbench MPs in the run up to next week's vote on the Higher Education Bill, the Prime Minister's Spokesman (PMS) said that she couldn't point to anything in particular at this stage. It went without saying that the Prime Minister remained as fully plugged into the issue as he had been last time. No doubt he would continue to talk to MPs about this matter.
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