Asked when the referendum for the EU Constitution might take place in the light of the Foreign Secretary's comments today, the Prime Minister's Official Spokesman (PMOS) said that the Foreign Secretary had simply been setting out the realities about the timing. Every country had two years from today in which to make a decision about the Constitution. Moreover, it was necessary to allow the parliamentary process to take its course in order to obtain parliamentary approval. How long that might take would depend on the parliamentary timetable - although it would obviously be a matter of months rather than weeks. In addition, the UK was due to hold the Presidency of the EU in the second half of 2005. Running a referendum at the same time, therefore, would clearly be an "interesting experience" given all the demands that would entail. In the light of all the above, however, it was important to acknowledge that we had not reached any definite decision as to when a referendum might be held. There were various factors to take into account and we would have to wait and see how things panned out.
Asked if the Prime Minister had had any meetings this morning in Rome about the European Commission, the PMOS said that the Prime Minister had had an informal discussion with European Commission President-elect Barroso. No doubt he would also have informal discussions with other European leaders. The Prime Minister had told Mr Barroso that we would fully support any decision he made to resolve the issue. However, today was not about reaching a decision on the shape of the new European Commission. It was a ceremonial occasion to mark the signing of the EU Constitution.
Asked if the Prime Minister was concerned about a survey published today suggesting that 100,000 Iraqi civilians had died as a result of the war in Iraq, the PMOS said that it was important to treat the figures with caution because there were a number of concerns and doubts about the methodology that had been used. Firstly, the survey appeared to be based on an extrapolation technique rather than a detailed body count. Our worries centred on the fact that the technique in question appeared to treat Iraq as if every area was one and the same. In terms of the level of conflict, that was definitely not the case. Secondly, the survey appeared to assume that bombing had taken place throughout Iraq. Again, that was not true. It had been focussed primarily on areas such as Fallujah. Consequently, we did not believe that extrapolation was an appropriate technique to use.
The Prime Minister's Official Spokesman (PMOS) briefed journalists on the Prime Minister's anti-social behaviour speech this afternoon. He pointed in particular to the announcement about giving more power to town and parish councils - which now covered something like a third of England - to build cleaner, safer neighbourhoods - specifically the power to issue fixed penalty notices (FPNs) for offences like dog-fouling, litter, graffiti and night-time noise. The FPNs would vary in amount, ranging from £30 to £100, depending on the offence. For example, a £50 penalty notice would be issued for dog fouling. The PMOS pointed out that town councillors would not be personally responsible for issuing FPNs. This would be the job of rangers and wardens whom town councils already employed. David Blunkett had also announced today that civil courts would be able to order compulsory drug treatment with an Anti-Social Behaviour Order (ASBO). The purpose of this was to strengthen our drive to break the link between drugs and crime. Put to him that no member of the Lobby had ever seen a parish or town council ranger or warden and were not even aware that they existed, the Times correspondent took the opportunity to inform his colleagues that there were, in fact, wardens in Norfolk where he lived. Responding to the resulting babble of excitement from journalists, the Times correspondent said that he didn't just go up to Norfolk at weekends to play golf, you know.
Asked when Downing Street would reply to Frank Field's questions about the Prime Minister's contacts with gambling companies, the PMOS said that they would be answered in due course. As we had already made clear, the Prime Minister had not met Thomas Baker. However, Mr Baker had met with No 10 officials. That being so, it was equally important to point out that those officials had also met representatives from charities and a wide range of other bodies, as was entirely proper. The PMOS pointed out that although it was true that the Bill had changed after Mr Baker's meeting in Downing Street, it was important to be clear that it had actually changed against his interests, not in support of them. As we had stated last Friday, the legislation had changed in order to reduce the number of gaming machines that were permitted in casinos, not increase them as Mr Baker had obviously wanted. Asked if there were any objections in principle to releasing details about contacts the Government had had with gambling organisations, the PMOS reminded journalists that it had never been our practice to brief on every single meeting the Prime Minister or any of his officials had. That said, it was our duty to point out inaccuracies in any media report, as indeed he had done today.
Asked to explain Jack Straw's assertion today that the UK was leading by example on climate change by cutting carbon dioxide emissions when Margaret Beckett had announced yesterday that allowances for carbon dioxide emissions were being increased, the PMOS said that as he understood it, we would still be within the range as set out in our Kyoto targets. Mrs Beckett had been talking about a technical adjustment in her speech yesterday, rather than calling into question our commitment and our ability to meet the targets we had said that we would meet.
Asked for an update on the kidnapping of Margaret Hassan in Iraq, the PMOS said he recognised the responsible way in which the media were approaching this issue. However, we were not commenting on it for very good reasons, which he was sure journalists would understand.
The Prime Minister's Official Spokesman (PMOS) advised journalists that the Prime Minister would be attending an event this afternoon, together with David Blunkett, Hazel Blears and Lord Falconer, to mark the first anniversary of the Anti-Social Behaviour Action Plan. The Prime Minister would be making a speech to members of local agencies and communities in which he would set out new ASB policy elements, particularly in terms of strengthening the use of Anti-Social Behaviour Orders (ASBOs) and Fixed Penalty Notices. The Home Secretary would also announce that fifty communities across the country, as 'Together Action Areas', were set to receive extra help to tackle anti-social behaviour. These areas included Cardiff, Exeter, Coventry and Middlesbrough. Eventually all corners of England and Wales would be covered. New research showed that there had been 2,600 ASBOs issued in the last year alone - double the number of the previous four years. There had also been more than 400 dispersal orders and 150 crack-house closure orders. Moreover, at least 100,000 ASB cases had been dealt with in the last year alone. The Prime Minister would say that whilst the new figures were heartening, "until action is taken in every community where it is needed - we can't rest. We haven't defeated this problem. Not by any means. But we have shown together what can be done".
The PMOS took the opportunity to point out to journalists that some media reports today which claimed that repossessions of houses were at an historic high were wrong. The figures released by DCA yesterday represented the number of court actions entered to begin repossession proceedings. However, as the DCA press release had made clear explicitly, "The figures do not indicate how many houses have been repossessed". The actual number of repossessions, as a percentage of all loans, was 0.03% - the lowest on record - compared to a peak of 0.4% in 1991 when it was 13 times greater. In 1991, there had been over 75,000 repossessions. Last year, the number had been 7,000.
Asked for a reaction to John Morrison's claim in his Today Programme interview this morning that the Government had been using intelligence material as a "PR tool" since 1997, the PMOS pointed out that this issue had been investigated by four inquiries whose finding were in the public domain. Put to him that Mr Morrison had also referred to Kosovo and Operation Desert Fox in the 1990s, the PMOS said that the MoD had already dealt with this matter. He had nothing further to add.
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