» Monday, October 25, 2004

Prime Minister’s press conference

[This is the transcript of one of the Prime Minister’s occasional press conferences; these
are the words of the Prime Minister giving a statement and answering the
questions of journalists. Unlike the PMOS’s briefings, this is a more-or-less
verbatim transcript of the Prime Minister’s words. Such press conferences
happen about once a month, and occasionally more often.]

I know there will be a number of things you will want to ask me about Iraq and asylum, gambling and so on. Before I take the questions, however, I would like to go through in a little bit of detail what we will be doing over the next few weeks on law and order, and also announce something in particular that we are doing on that subject today. And I think it is just worth saying at the outset that we have got a very strong forward policy agenda that we will be outlining over the next few weeks on the bread and butter domestic issues that concern hard working families in this country, and we will be laying that out before you, week in, week out, over the months ahead. So as well as these other issues which are naturally there, we are concentrating on that agenda.

Overall crime is down 30% since 1997, the chances of being a victim are the lowest for 23 years, police numbers are at record levels, they are up 12,500, supported by 4,000 Community Support Officers, we obviously want to increase that. That is no consolation however, whatever, if you are affected by crime, if you are a victim of crime, and I know there remain some very real challenges and people want us to do more. So we are accelerating the reform of the criminal justice system, with the aim of trying to rebalance it in favour of the victims and the witnesses of crime. From December a jury will routinely have the right to know of a previous conviction or charge against someone in court for the same crime. But on top of that, today’s announcement is that from December in cases relating to child sex abuse, or theft, the court will also have the powers to ensure juries are aware of any previous convictions in respect of similar offences. An order is being laid before parliament to implement the so-called bad character provision, set out in the 2003 Criminal Justice Act, and there will be guidance to the courts on how to implement these two areas.

I accept this is controversial. There are people who believe this undermines the defendant’s rights, but for too long the scales of justice have been weighted in the defendant’s favour and against the victim. That is changing. This will end the situation where a defendant may have committed a string of similar offences, but they are not considered relevant or admissible in court, and I think juries often find that immensely frustrating.

This morning also I took part in the trial testing of the new biometric technology for identity cards. It is important we get this technology right and ensure it will be user-friendly for the public. That is of course the purpose of the trial. Overall progress is very encouraging and I am confident we can successfully develop a secure biometric ID card for the whole country, and I think ID cards have an important role to play in fighting serious crime and terrorism and tackling illegal immigration. We know that false identities are important to terrorists and criminals, and we know that because they keep on using them. The Director General of the Security Service has said that at least one third of terrorists use multiple identities routinely. Computers and technology are so advanced now that forgery of passports and identity documents is easier than it has ever been. We need to know people are who they say they are, not least to ensure public services are used for those who are eligible for them. A secure modern solution will give us much more protection than we have at the moment. David Blunkett, I should also tell you, will be publishing a detailed response to the Home Affairs Select Committee report on ID cards this Wednesday, when he will set out how we will take forward some of the issues raised by the consultation over the draft Bill. We will legislate as soon as parliamentary time is available, and I believe that security must be our legislative priority.

On Thursday we will be publishing a report which sets out what the police, local authorities and communities have achieved in tackling antisocial behaviour over the last year, and as I continue to say wherever I go in the country, I would say this is the single biggest issue that people raise with me. It is clear however that the new powers, especially where they are being used in an active way, are making a difference. They have been successful and welcomed by police and public alike. Charlie Falconer announced further steps yesterday to protect witnesses, and we will be setting out what more we can do to help the vast majority of law-abiding citizens deal effectively with the minority of louts who can blight their lives. We will continue to bear down relentlessly on this problem.

Next month the government will also be publishing a White Paper on policing. This will set out how we reinvigorate, really in a sense reinvent community policing for today’s world, and the task is to make sure that we have both the numbers of police, the visible presence we require on the streets, but also the powers the police need to make that presence count. Before the end of the year we will also publish our forward strategy on asylum and immigration.

Of course the focus on Iraq will intensify in the run-up to the elections in January in Iraq, and it is right that it should. This is an important moment for the people of Iraq, as the country moves towards democracy, just as it was for the people of Afghanistan. But it is also supremely important for our own security here in this country.

At the same time we will meet the other challenges that we have set out on the home front, and to those I have already mentioned on law and order can be added obviously alcohol-related disorder, gun and knife crime in certain parts of the country.

So over the next few days, and indeed few weeks, we will be setting out this forward agenda. At the same time obviously we will continue to make sure that we follow through the actions that we have taken in Iraq and elsewhere, and I believe it will be a strong forward agenda for opportunity for the country and also for security for us.


Prime Minister, you want a major expansion of casinos around the country. How does that relate to your core values?

First of all I think it is helpful just to set out what the Gambling Bill does and does not do. Essentially we have all sorts of different forms of gambling in this country, as you know, betting shops, races, a bet on the football, and it is very important that we modernise the regulation of gambling for today’s world. 90% of the Gambling Bill is actually about better regulation, better protection for children, removing slot machines from round about 6,000 premises where minors, children, might get access to it, and in return for that we are giving the power to local authorities to grant planning permission for these larger leisure complexes, including casinos, which will probably add round about 20 – 40 casinos to the 120 that there already are in this country. And those will be directed to areas of regeneration, where these big complexes will probably get round about 50% of their income from non-gambling sources. But the whole of the rest of the legislation is actually to do with tightening the regulation on gambling

Apart from the American gambling industry, who wants this?

Well go and talk to the people in Blackpool who urgently need the regeneration. For many of these places this is a chance to put this on a proper modern footing, it allows us to regulate for example internet gambling, which is presently unregulated, it allows us to remove the possibility of young people in something like 6,000 premises around the country where at present they have got access to slot machines, and it allows us to make sure, in these limited number of cases, and as we announced in June it would be about 20 – 40 places round the country, you can have this done in a proper way.

But that is a big expansion of casinos.

Well we have got 120 casinos in the country, it is 20 – 40, but done in a way that allows us to regulate it properly and allows us actually to get rid of some of the outdated restrictions in different parts of the country that prevent these big complexes going ahead, and actually allows us to regulate for the first time gambling in a proper way so that you have actually got a Gambling Commission that is able to take action and make sure that abuses of gambling are properly regulated. So as I say, look I totally understand why it is a concern for people, and I think it is right in saying that if you go back through the history of this when the regulations were put in for example at the end of the ’60s, the present regulations for the casinos, there were exactly the same fears expressed. But at the moment you have, whether we like it or not, you have gambling done in this country, but with a whole series of rules and restrictions that are completely out of date. So on the one hand we are actually tightening the regulation of gambling, particularly where it can affect children, but on the other hand we are not preventing local authorities, I am not saying they have got to, but we are not preventing them having big investment come into areas that need it where the gambling can take place in a proper regulated environment.

You promised the people the final say on the European Constitution. Why then are you giving up the veto on our border controls without them having that say?

Well again let’s get to the facts on this. There is no question of Britain giving up our veto on our border controls. In the Treaty of Amsterdam 7 years ago we secured the absolute right to opt-in to any of the asylum and immigration provisions that we wanted to in Europe. Unless we opt in, we are not affected by it. And what this actually gives us is the best of both worlds. We are not obliged to have any of the European rules here, but where we decide in a particular area, for example to halt the trafficking in people, for example to make sure that there are proper restrictions on some of the European borders that end up affecting our country, it allows us to opt-in and take part in these measures. So the idea that we are going to give up the border protection that we secured is simply not true, we secured it at Amsterdam, it was repeated in the Nice Treaty and it is there in the new treaty as well.

But you are giving up the power that you have now to veto new European laws on asylum and immigration. Yes, Britain may decide not to take part, you say, but the European Commission, the European Court of Justice, can develop a body of law on these areas and Britain is voluntarily saying we will give up the veto over what Europe decides to do on these areas.

I am sorry, that simply is not right, Nick, that is not what we are doing. We will retain the absolute right not to participate, never mind not vetoing it, not to participate. Where we have decided to participate, where we take a decision that we want to participate so it is a measure we actually want Europe to do, then we can get it done more easily. And the reason that that is important is that there are issues to do with European-wide immigration and asylum where we need proper controls in Europe. So this, as I say, gives us the best of both worlds, we cooperate where we want to, and we don’t where we don’t want to.

Just for the sake of understanding, maybe you could explain to people what is it you are giving up. Every other government has kept this, you are giving something up, are you telling us you are not giving the veto up?

No, we are not giving anything up. Look, there is a complete misunderstanding about this. Let me go back into the history of this. It was agreed some years ago that asylum and immigration measures should progressively move to qualified majority voting, and the discussion over this weekend is about more of those areas moving to qualified majority voting. You already have qualified majority voting for some of the measures, but Britain insisted, because we are an island nation, we insisted that we would retain complete control over our own borders, and would only participate in European-wide action where we chose to do so, in other words stronger than an opt-out, an opt-in, we have to opt-in. However, in the areas where we have decided to opt-in, for example returning failed asylum seekers to other parts of Europe, it is actually in our interests when that happens to make sure that small countries can’t block the measures we think are necessary for this country. Now all that is happening, as I understand it, is that the measures already agreed in earlier treaties are simply being rolled out, as was envisaged by those treaties over a number of years, and the issue for us is very simple, do we still retain the ability to decide our own border controls and the ability to decide absolutely, unequivocally, the sovereign right of this country, whether we take part in measures or not. And the answer to that is yes, we retain that absolutely, without any qualification at all. So the reason I say it gives us the best of both worlds is that what it means is that where we think something is actually in our interests, for example to make sure that people can’t fiddle their way in through European borders, where there are measures that actually protect us against illegal people-trafficking, to take an example, in those circumstances we are able to opt in. And where we opt in of course is because we want the measure, and therefore it is important for us to get the measure. However, if we decide for example, let’s say European border guards, or they are about to decide our rules on asylum, if we decide we are not going to participate, we don’t participate, and we are not going to participate on anything – let me make this clear to you – that takes away our right to decide our own asylum and immigration policies in the way we think is right for this country.

Forgive me, but now you could veto them doing it for the rest of Europe?

No, no, sorry you are wrong. The point about the opt-in is that we can only do that if we are opted into it. Do you see what I mean? So in other words if we have taken the decision that we are not going to opt-in then we don’t have any rights over what the rest of Europe do. Do you see what I mean? I hope it is clear.

The Black Watch are on the move north today to backfill, as the Defence Secretary calls it, for American troops who are trying to retake the rebel stronghold of Fallujah. The fact that you are sending those British troops there, does that mean that you and the British government fully endorse any action that the Americans take in Fallujah, even if that includes the bombing and large numbers of civilian casualties. And how long are British regiments going to be in that area? You have said that the Black Watch will be home by Christmas, that General Walker has said there will have to be other regiments after that, how long are they going to be there? Is John Major right when he says they are going to be there for years?

First of all let’s just underline the strategic importance of what is happening. The key issue is the Iraqi elections in January. This is a very, very big moment. If the Iraqi people are able to elect their own government, that is the whole case of these terrorists destroyed. They are trying to say this is an occupying force designed to suppress the people of Iraq. Actually what they really want to do, these people, is to stop the elections going ahead. Why? Because they know if elections go ahead that is the end of their propaganda. So it is of immense importance to this country, as well as the whole of the coalition, that it goes ahead. We are undertaking a limited operation for a limited period, and that is what we will do. And as for any operation there may be in Fallujah, that will not be done, except at the instigation of the Iraqi government, not a US-appointed government, as it is sometimes described, but a UN-appointed government, and they are the ones that will take the decision on whether the operations goes ahead or the nature of the operation. But the reason for ensuring that we have as much of Iraq as possible under proper control is the Iraqi election, and the reason these people are trying to stop us is that they don’t want the elections to go ahead, and that is why we have got to stand firm and see it through, and we have got to be very clear about it.

How long are the troops going to be there, because General Walker has already said there will have to be others after the Black Watch.

No, he hasn’t said that. We have got a limited deployment for a limited period of time. All he does the whole time, which is very sensible, is to say we cannot prejudge what may happen in the future. But the deployment we have got for the Black Watch is for a limited period of time for a limited operation.

Can I take you back to your series of personal announcements at the end of the Labour conference, and in particular what some people might regard as a loose end on one of those, which is the financial arrangements surrounding your purchase of the house in Connaught Square. Now it would obviously not be reasonable to expect you to spell out every dot and comma, but for people who worry about these things, can you say are you millions of pounds in debt, is the debt guaranteed by an individual or is it a conventional arrangement? And what do you say to people who worry that in the back of your mind from now on may be the idea that you have to carry on being bankable in America, rather than simply making decisions for the good of the British people?

I think even for the Express that is pushing it somewhat. I have got nothing to say other than what has already been said on that.

On your announcement that juries are going to be told of previous convictions, isn’t this just going to make the number of people in prison rise massively, and are you going to expand the number of prison places to cope with it?

We already are expanding the number of prison places and if people want tough action on crime – and they do – you have got to be prepared to put people in prison who deserve to be in prison. But I know of so many cases where the police, and indeed members of the jury themselves, get so angry when only afterwards do they learn about the previous convictions of someone for exactly the same offence, or convictions for very similar offences. And this is all part of a major rebalancing of the criminal justice system in favour of the victim, whilst protecting the rights of the innocent, but we have also got to make sure that we convict the guilty. And it is just worth pointing this out,I totally understand why in respect of the issue of crime, if you are a victim of crime, it is no consolation to know that crime has fallen 30%. You did something on burglary today. Burglary, according to the British Crime Survey is down 40%, according to the recorded police statistics it is down over 20%, but that is no consolation if you are one of the people who is a victim of burglary. And what is important for people to understand is there are a whole series of measures – legislation, extra numbers of police, better working within the criminal justice system – that I think if you talk to many of the senior police officers and people in the Crown Prosecution Service, are actually beginning to make a difference. The system is working better, but there is a long way to go, I fully accept that. And this measure about previous convictions is just designed to make it clear we are not going to have people playing the system and getting away with criminal offences that cause real misery to ordinary citizens.

Briefing took place at 17:45 | Search for related news

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