» Wednesday, May 19, 2004

PMQs Incident

Asked the Prime Minister’s reaction to the incident during PMQs today, the Prime Minister’s Official Spokesman (PMOS) said that the first question he had asked on reaching his office in the Commons was how soon he would be able to return to the Chamber to continue PMQs. The Speaker had then explained that that was not going to be possible because the House had to be secured and properly searched. The Prime Minister had accepted that decision and had instead used to the time to prepare his remarks for the alcohol abuse seminar, which was due to be held tomorrow with representatives of the drinks industry. Asked if the Speaker had had a meeting with the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition to decide what course of action to take, the PMOS said no. The Speaker, together with a representative from the Leader of the Opposition, had come to the Prime Minister’s office to explain why he thought it would be best not to resume PMQs. The Prime Minister had accepted that view. Asked precisely what the Prime Minister had said in reply to the Speaker’s suggestion, the PMOS said that he couldn’t remember. The Prime Minister had accepted the Speaker’s decision and had decided to get on with business. Obviously he would have preferred to complete PMQs, but he had accepted that that would not be possible for reasons he completely understood.

Asked what the Prime Minister had said to the Leader of the Opposition in the immediate aftermath of the incident, the PMOS said that it wasn’t our policy to brief on private conversations between the Prime Minister and the Opposition Leader. Asked to confirm reports that the Prime Minister had told the Leader of the Opposition that he hadn’t planned the incident, to which the Opposition Leader had replied that ‘for once’ he believed him, the PMOS said that if others wanted to brief on what might or might not have been said, that was a matter for them. He would abide by the usual convention.

Asked if the Prime Minister had realised immediately that he wasn’t in danger, the PMOS said he did not think it would be helpful to answer questions of this nature at this stage because it would take him into territory into which he did not want to go.

Asked if Downing Street would be conducting its own investigation into what had happened, the PMOS said everyone obviously recognised that there were serious implications when something of this nature occurred. However, the House authorities, together with the Met Police and the security services, were already conducting a review into security. No doubt today’s incident would be taken into account and we would obviously assist in that in any way we could. Asked if the Prime Minister took the view that there was a limit to amount of security that could be offered, the PMOS said that as we had all learned from past experience, there was no such thing as perfect security. However, that did not mean that security procedures should not be updated and tightened as much possible, where possible, as indeed the House authorities had done recently. No doubt they would examine today’s incident and learn all the necessary lessons. It went without saying that no one took the issue of security lightly. However, the best way to deal with it was calmly, coolly and by using all the expertise we had.

Asked if the Prime Minister believed that the general public should continue to be allowed into the Chamber to watch Parliament at work, the PMOS said that he had no intention of pre-empting the security review that was taking place. Clearly there was a fine balance to be struck between allowing access, which was what a democratic political process was all about, and ensuring proper security. That was precisely why it was important to safeguard, and not abuse, the access that was allowed. While it would obviously be wrong to comment directly on those responsible for today’s incident while an investigation was ongoing, people should nevertheless recognise that there were proper ways and procedures for pressure groups, no matter what their interest, to express their views. These should not be abused.

Asked to confirm reports that one of the individuals involved in today’s incident had received a letter from the Prime Minister, after meeting him at a Big Conversation event, in which he had reportedly backtracked on his views on father’s rights, the PMOS said that he was unable to comment directly on the individual concerned because of the ongoing investigation. All he would say was that the Prime Minister had always made clear in any correspondence on this issue his deep sympathy for those involved in what was obviously a very complex and emotionally fraught issue on both sides. Obviously the courts did not begin with any presumption on access, but when the courts ruled, as they generally did, in favour of equal access for both parents, we recognised that enforcing contact orders was sometimes problematic. Courts already had powers to fine and/or imprison those who did not follow their decisions, but were often reluctant to use them on the grounds that it would not necessarily be in the best interests of the child to do so. We had conveyed these views to those groups with an interest in these matters, such as Fathers Direct, Families Need Fathers and Fathers 4 Justice, and had also advised them that there would be a further consultation in the summer and autumn about this particular issue. Claims that there was no democratic forum and process for taking forward these delicate and sensitive issues were clearly wrong.

Asked if the Prime Minister’s jacket had been ‘taken into custody’ after having been dusted with purple powder, the PMOS said that the jacket was ‘in the appropriate hands’. Asked if that meant it was at Sketchleys, the PMOS thanked journalists for their invitation to him to elaborate, but he would politely decline the offer. Asked if the Prime Minister, or his clothing, had been subjected to any kind of medical or forensic testing, the PMOS said he did not think it would be appropriate to get drawn into a discussion about this issue for obvious reasons. Suffice to say that the appropriate precautions had been taken.

Asked why no attempt appeared to have been made to remove the Prime Minister from what was a potentially hazardous site in the aftermath of the incident, the PMOS said that were a number of presumptions contained in the question which he was unable to address for security reasons. Asked if Downing Street was satisfied that the proper procedures had been followed today in the light of the Leader of the House’s statement that all those present in the Chamber would be locked in and decontaminated were such an incident to happen again, the PMOS said that these were matters to be investigated by the ongoing review. It would be wrong to pre-empt its conclusions. It was important for people to approach this matter in a calm and orderly way. Asked if the review would be accelerated in the light of today’s incident, the PMOS said that that was a matter for the authorities, not him.

Asked if the Prime Minister would be prepared to press charges for assault and/or to testify in court if necessary, the PMOS said that it was important to let the authorities deal with this case in the proper way. He was reluctant to say anything which could prejudice that process.

Briefing took place at 15:45 | Search for related news

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