The Prime Minister's Official Spokesman (PMOS) briefed journalists on the Prime Minister's meeting today with European Commission President-elect Jose Manuel Durao Barroso. He said that it had been a warm meeting which had been wide-ranging, focussing in particular on what Mr Barroso had said were two of his priorities in setting up the new Commission, namely the Lisbon agenda on economic reform and how the European Commission could help to bring about better regulation. Asked if the Prime Minister and Mr Barroso had discussed the Iraq war in the light of the Summit between the two leaders and President Bush in the Azores in March 2003 in the run up to the conflict, the PMOS said not as far as he was aware. Mr Barroso had rather a lot on his plate at the moment as you would expect, and there had been more than enough items for discussion to fill his time with the Prime Minister today.
Asked which of the four options set out by Adair Turner in his report today most attracted the Prime Minister, the PMOS pointed out that today's report was an interim report. As Mr Turner had indicated, he would present his final conclusions next year. We had no intention of pre-empting them. The analysis of the pensions issue which had been published today was the most detailed to date. As Mr Turner had made clear, it was an issue which had been around for twenty years. The core of the problem was the change in demographics which was partly a consequence of the market not adapting to the reality of people living longer and the swings it had seen in recent years. This was a problem not only facing this country but all developed countries, and was clearly something we needed to address. As Mr Turner had also pointed out, while there were immediate pension problems to address in the short term which the Government was doing, it was important to consider the longer term issues which were not due to bite for another twenty years. This was the role of the Pensions Commission. It was therefore sensible to give Mr Turner and his team the time and space to carry out their work over the next twelve to eighteen months to allow them to come up with their recommendations. We did not deny the fact that the Pensions Secretary, Alan Johnson, had stated his belief that there was a role for voluntary pension schemes to play. However, the Pensions Commission would examine all the options over the next year or so. Mr Turner's conclusions would be contained in his final report. In the meantime, it was important not to dismiss any of the recommendations.
Asked if the Prime Minister accepted that he had misled the country and Parliament over the 45-minute claim in the light of the Foreign Secretary's announcement today that MI6 was withdrawing it, the PMOS said no. He pointed out that this was not new information. We had acknowledged at the time of the Butler Inquiry that there were question marks over the particular piece of intelligence under scrutiny. All the Foreign Secretary had been doing today was formalising the position as set out at the time. Asked repeatedly why the Prime Minister would not go to the House and apologise for misleading Parliament in his Statement in September 2002, the PMOS said, firstly the Prime Minister's Statement then had been based on the state of knowledge at the time. Equally, when that knowledge had changed, he had acknowledged that and had accepted full responsibility in his response to the Butler Inquiry in July. Today's Statement by the Foreign Secretary reflected the fact that the Security Services had now formally 'withdrawn' the 45-minute claim. Again Parliament had been informed in the proper way.
Asked for a response to the Turner report on pensions, the Prime Minister's Official Spokesman (PMOS) said that it was important to be clear about the role of the Pensions Commission. Everyone recognised that there had been some problems with some pensions schemes which we had now addressed by setting aside £400m as well as establishing the Pension Protection Fund - a measure contained in the Pensions Bill currently going through Parliament - to help people who had already lost their pensions and to protect those whose pension schemes might get into trouble in the future. The purpose of the Pensions Commission was to look at the longer-term issues surrounding pensions, the problems with which, as Adair Turner had underlined, had been around for at least two decades. As he had also acknowledged, it was not something that was going to cause a problem in ten years' time, but it would cause difficulties in twenty years' time if not tackled now. That was why he had called for a long-term sustainable answer to this issue, which was something with which the Government fundamentally agreed. Today we welcomed the interim report and the detailed analysis which it contained. The Prime Minister had set up the Commission precisely so that we could take a long-term consensual approach to the whole issue, rather than look for knee-jerk short-term answers. We would obviously take part in any consultations arising from the report and would await Mr Turner's final report next year.
Asked about the Prime Minister's meeting today in Downing Street with the incoming European Commission President, Jose Manuel Durao Barroso, the PMOS said that it was a significant meeting inasmuch as Mr Barroso was due to become European Commission President in less than a month. The Prime Minister and Mr Barroso would obviously want to address the issues on the Commission's agenda, including those relating to the Lisbon reform agenda and regulation for example. It was also an opportunity for the Prime Minister to hear directly from Mr Barroso what his priorities were for the new Commission and to wish him well as he set off on an important period in the history of the Commission and the EU as a whole.
Asked to set out the official version of events leading up to the murder of Ken Bigley, the PMOS said that he had nothing to add to what the Foreign Office had said about this matter over the weekend other than to say that the picture remained confused. It would take time, if ever, to clarify what had happened. Asked for a reaction to reports suggesting that Mr Bigley's body had been found this morning, the PMOS said that we were aware of the reports but were unable to confirm them at this stage. Asked if it was Government policy not to bribe captors in an attempt to persuade them to help their hostages escape, the PMOS said that as we had made clear, we were not in the business of negotiations or paying ransoms.
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