» Thursday, May 12, 2005

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.]

Question:

We have all had that experience.  Prime Minister, picking up on your last point there about respect and you mentioned the binge drinking culture, wouldn’t the single strongest message that you could send to people that you had heard what they are saying on this is to go back on what you are doing on 24 hour drinking.  Sometimes it seems to people that the government goes into a kind of Vickie Pollard  mode on this – yes, but no, but yes but. It is a very, very big problem. A lot of people just don’t understand why the government is sending out such different messages.

Prime Minister:

Well it is important that we don’t send out different messages, but let me just explain. For any pub or club to get an extension under the new licensing laws, they have got to go through a local procedure that is now governed by local people. It is far tougher than it used to be.  It is not the old Magistrates licensing system, it is done through the local authorities with local residents and so on, and the police. And my point the whole way through you see is that the law abiding majority shouldn’t have their pleasure curtailed by the fact that even under existing licensing, a disorderly minority are abusing the system. And I think we have got to be very, very clear about this, it is not for everyone to have to pay the penalty of the behaviour of a few, and I think people can distinguish very clearly between more flexible licensing, where it is agreed locally. They are perfectly entitled to say for example if a pub or a club where there are problems outside on a Friday and Saturday night, they can say to them I am afraid we are refusing that licence. The police have now the power, and this is very important because I urge the police to use it, to close a pub or club for 24 hours and trigger a review of their entire licence. Now these powers are there. We have introduced anti-social behaviour measures.  I am happy to go back and look at further measures on binge drinking, on anti-social behaviour, on the issue to do with carrying knives, on graffiti, vandalism, every single aspect of this. I want the police to have the powers that they want, I want a visible uniform presence out on the street, and I want to send a very clear signal from parliament,  not just from government, but from parliament, that this type of disrespect and yobbish behaviour is not going to be tolerated by people any more. And it is just a very simple thing this, but if I have to say one lesson above all others that came back to me during the course of the election, it is – and this is across the classes incidentally – I often say it is in the poorest communities that people are most vulnerable, but actually this is a middle class concern every bit as much as a concern of people on working class estates, and we have just got to send a clear message, with the right legislation, the extra numbers of police and community support officers, that we are not going to tolerate it, and that we expect to say to people, look you treat other people with respect, with a  sense of decency and good manners towards others.

Question:

Prime Minister, 10 – 20 years ago I think you would have said that the problem was what people called the me society, or the idea that there is no such thing as society. What is the problem?  You have been in power, and I am not making a political point, what do you think is the problem in society, given that you have tried to restore through your policies an idea of community? And do you on a much more specific point have sympathy, as the Deputy Prime Minister did today, for a big shopping centre saying actually we won’t have kids in hoodies, we won’t have kids in baseball caps because it alarms and threatens people?

PM:

I have total sympathy with that and I completely agree with what John was saying this morning.  The question you raise, well obviously that is why it is important to have a debate about this, what are the causes of it?  I can only tell you how I think as a person, rather than as a politician. First of all I think people need to know they can’t get away with it, and I think too often they have felt they can get away with it. That is why it is important to have the new legislation and so on, and to make it clear that if you are drunk and disorderly on a Friday night in a town centre you are going to be picked up and something is going to happen to you. Secondly, however, I do think there are some very deep seated causes of this that are to do with, well I think are to do with family life in the way that parents regard their responsibility to their children, in the way that some kids grow up, generation to generation, without proper parenting, without a proper sense of discipline within the family, and you know some of these things, I can’t solve all these problems, that is one of the things I want to say. I can start a debate on this and I can legislate, but what I can’t do is I can’t raise someone’s children for them. And the question that I ask for example is, when a teacher tells off a child in school, the response of the parent should be to back the teacher, the response of the parent should not be to go in there and start shouting the odds, because that is what gives the teacher the feeling that the parents aren’t on their side. And I think there are a whole series of things like this that we need to look at and examine, but the first thing we need to do is just to say these types of behaviour are just completely unacceptable and we are not prepared to tolerate it, and we are prepared to take action to stop it. And I think if that means that in situations like the Bluewater centre that they just simply say we are not going to do it, we are not going to have these people, I am afraid that is just the way it is, then I would back that up completely.

Question:

Prime Minister, throughout the election campaign, from the manifesto launch onwards, you used the formula that if elected you intended to serve a full term.  Now although invited to yesterday at the meeting of the parliamentary party I understand from a number of people there that you did not use that formula, indeed instead you talked about having space for an orderly transition, does that mean that you have changed your mind, or is it your intention to serve a full term, as most of us would understand that, ie 4 – 5 years?

Prime Minister:

I have got nothing to add to what I said in the election campaign, that remains the position. I actually wasn’t invited to make any specific comments on it at all yesterday. And I suppose what I think the party, and in a sense the country, just wants to see is for us to get on with the business now. That is really what it was.

Question:

Prime Minister, does the government have any independent evidence linking any Member of Parliament with the Iraq oil for food programme, and more specifically, what measures will the government take to pursue the matters revealed by the Senate investigating committee concerning George Galloway?

Prime Minister:

I have only just looked at the reports that I have seen on the news and in the papers, so I don’t really have anything to add to that. I think that insofar as there is evidence, it is there in the stuff that is before the Senate.  If I am wrong about that, I will …

Question:

Will the British government be independently investigating?

Prime Minister:

We have got no plans to do that. Obviously it depends what emerges, but I don’t feel in a position to comment on it particularly because I have not really analysed the evidence myself.

Question:

I am just intrigued as to how you can legislate for more respect, but as you say, isn’t it a question of parenting and things like that, rather than anything you can actually do through a change of the law?

Prime Minister:

The anti-social behaviour legislation, I do urge people to go and look at the parts of the country where it is working.

Question:

Is it more of that kind of thing?

Prime Minister:

It is in part more of that kind of thing, but I think the other thing we need to do is to sit down with head teachers and others and work out what we do to make sure that they feel they have got the proper powers within the classroom to make discipline count.

Question:

But have you got Bills on the statute book ready to go, or are you thinking about a sort of dialogue which leads to a series of legislation?

Prime Minister:

We will have measures to strengthen anti-social behaviour, we will have measures on knives, on binge drinking, on drugs.  On classroom discipline and so on, I think it is a question of sitting down, as I say, with the head teachers and working out the right way forward. Because at the moment what we have done is we have provided much better provision for permanently excluded pupils, but if I am frank about it, that is only a small part of the picture and we need to go far further in doing that.

Question:

On the question of anti-social behaviour, will the responsibility for licensing still stay with the Culture Department, or will that move to ODPM?  And also, on the list of Bills you hinted at at the outset, you mentioned the immigration legislation that is coming. Having been around the country, what do you think is the real problem that we have with immigration in the country, particularly given the rise of the BNP again?

Prime Minister:

On the first, no we have got no plans to change where the licensing laws sit, but as I say the important thing for people to realise is that as part of the new licensing regime it is a different group of people who make the decision now, and the police have greater powers, and they have got greater powers, so it is a very sensible sort of rights and responsibilities package.  On the immigration issue, I think that the immigration and asylum issues, my experience from the election campaign is that they fitted into two different categories:  one is those people who, if I can put it bluntly, are sort of anti-immigrant, and I think they are a reasonably small number of people;  the other is a group of people who just think that the rules don’t have integrity, and that is why it is so important that we change the asylum laws, as we have done, and actually I think when the fresh asylum figures are published in a couple of weeks time people will see really quite a significant change in the picture there.  Immigration is different. There are measures that we need to take to tighten up the system, and we will tighten up the system. So we will introduce the points system for work permits, we are compiling a register of all the accredited student colleges, so we are making sure people aren’t over-staying their welcome or going to bogus colleges, we are going to end this idea that you can have chain dependants, people not just with their immediate relatives, but relatives of relatives and so on. So all of these will be changes that I think tighten the system up without putting at risk the essential openness of our economy or the tolerance of our society, and I just think it is important we respond to that issue.  Immigration was an issue during the election campaign. I think you have just got to deal with this issue in a sensible way, and then I think it is possible to move on from it, because I think it would be unhealthy to have this running as a major issue in an election campaign again. I do believe that.

Question:

Prime Minister, the European Parliament has voted to try to abolish our opt-out on the 48 hour working week by the back door. You have suggested that you will try to block this by getting a sufficient minority, or sufficient number in the European Council of Ministers.  If you fail, which is a reasonable possibility, will you then introduce the new changes and abolish our opt-out?

Prime Minister:

I have no intention whatever of abolishing our opt-out.  Now what happens if we fail? We will have to see at that stage, but we actually believe we have a blocking minority. I think the vote is wrong, it is completely mis-guided, and we have got to have a fundamental debate in Europe about the direction that Europe wants to go, because the fact is the competition that Europe’s economies face from the emerging economies of the world, never mind America, but the new economies of China and India, mean that we simply cannot afford to give up our flexibility, and we have got to mobilise people and governments within Europe to set our face against this. And that is one reason why it was very important to get Jose Barroso as the President of the European Commission, because I know he shares this general view that we do not require greater inflexibility in our labour market, we can’t afford to do that. The model social dimension today is investment in skills, in science, in technology, in helping people to find a new job if they lose their existing one in an active welfare state, it is not believing that you can save people’s jobs by regulation, or that you can change the way of the world by arbitrary working time provisions that simply won’t work.  I would just point out to you incidentally that this Working Time Directive I think was agreed in the early 1990s, unfortunately it just seems to continue.

Question:

You mentioned rights and responsibilities, Prime Minister.  One aspect of that which was troubling people before the election was voter turnout. We crept up to 61% last Thursday, but that included postal votes, which created problems. Were you pleased, disappointed?  Did you think we have turned the corner?  And what other aspect of the election either surprised or pleased you?

Prime Minister:

I think on turnout, of course it concerns me, the turnout, and we want more people participating. I was trying to think of this just on my way up the stairs, but some of you will know better than me, I think the highest number of votes cast for a governing party in an election in recent time was probably 1992. Would I be right in that?  Yes.  And if you look at the American election you could draw some of the same conclusions. Where people think an election is really close, they will come out I got increasingly alarmed, as I think you could tell from what I was saying at press conferences. I think you guys probably thought I was just saying it because I felt I had to say it, but I was actually getting worried that I was meeting people who just said well the election is over. And I think the turnout was slightly higher than 2001, but I am quite sure that if you actually did get a close election you would get a far higher turnout. Now having said that, I would hope that we can also stimulate a better debate between politics and people over the next few years, because I think one thing that was very frustrating during the course of the election campaign was how little of it really came to policy – and I am not saying this was your fault incidentally, any more than it is our fault – but I think it did conspire at times to make the election less than interesting for the public watching it.

Question:

Any other pleasant surprises, apart from the result?

Prime Minister:

Pleasant surprises?

Question:

Inaudible.

Prime Minister:

I don’t know.  I will have to think about that one.

Question:

Prime Minister, one of the next big things on the horizon is the European referendum on the constitution. Have you a time and a date planned for that, and do we assume that you plan to lead the Yes campaign for that?

Prime Minister:

Absolutely. Exactly when, we haven’t decided yet.  It will be done in a stable and orderly way.

Question:

If part of this solution eventually for anti-social behaviour is perhaps a stronger conventional family unit, is it time for you to do more to encourage that, maybe through the tax system for instance?

Prime Minister:

Well the question is you have got to work out what the reasons for it are. I think it is important to look at what signals you send, I agree with that, but I am slightly dubious myself that this is an issue that can be resolved through the tax system, because I think what you are talking about is often in situations where family life has become very dysfunctional and you wonder really whether it is susceptible to that type of solution. I mean one of the reasons we introduced the Sure Start programme was to try and see what long term solutions can be provided by way of support for people, and that is a programme that I think has been very successful, and it would be interesting maybe 5 or 6 years down the line to do an evaluation of whether that has reduced the propensity in certain areas, and certain families, reduced the propensity for anti-social behaviour.  But I have got an open mind on many of these things.

Question:

Prime Minister, Jacques Chirac is saying to the French people that the constitution is going to embed the European social model, and lots more things like the 48 hour working week directive. You are saying to us that actually it starts to embed the American business model in Europe. Who is right?

Prime Minister:

I think that both sides in the French referendum are saying it is the way to keep at bay those Anglo-Saxons, isn’t that right, both sides are saying that.

Question:

My French colleagues tell me that Chirac is telling the French people that this will keep things …

Prime Minister:

Look, I don’t want to really enter into the French referendum campaign. I think that the European Constitution leaves things like tax rates absolutely the prerogative of the nation state, as it should do. I think there is a far bigger debate though, which is what the European social model should be in the modern world, and I just think a social model that is based on, regulation is the best form of job protection, a closed economy is the best way to guarantee business and industry surviving is an out-dated idea, it is just not going to happen any more. And what we have got to be doing is changing, not the principles behind the social model, but changing fundamentally the way those principles are applied, and I don’t know that the constitution really answers that question frankly either way.

Question:

Prime Minister, can I ask a question on Iran?  Will you end talks with Iran if Iran says it will resume its nuclear activity, and would Britain support immediate referral to the United Nations Security Council?

Prime Minister:

Well let’s wait and see what actually happens, but we certainly will support referral to the UN Security Council if Iran breaches its undertakings and obligations, and quite how that will come about, we have got to work out with our colleagues and allies, but those international rules are there for a reason and they have got to be adhered to.

Question:

David Blunkett this morning … regarding pensions, nothing is off limits and people might be forced to save for their retirement. Do you agree?

Prime Minister:

Well I don’t think he is going to say anything different from what I said in the election campaign, which is you can’t say things are off limits when you have got a commission reporting to you. I have always made it clear what I think is the problem, and I think I said this during the election campaign, with compelling people to save in circumstances where if you are talking about someone on a very modest income, it is very tough for them to do that. So we will just have to wait and see what comes out of the commission report. And then I think it is important, insofar as possible I think there are two issues I think very clearly, and possibly three, upon which it would be good to get a broad political consensus:  one is pensions, the other is council tax, and the third is transport funding, and each of those three are very tricky, but they all have one thing in common – they require long term solutions that survive any change of government. And I think what we need to do, and this was the reason for establishing the Turner Commission, is to use that commission report as a basis for then promoting a debate that hopefully reaches a consensus.

Question:

Could I ask you what you think are the implications of your answer to the last but one question on the election first of all, and you can view this with some objectivity because you haven’t got to fight the next one, so you can be quite candid about it.

Prime Minister:

As if I am not always.

Question:

As if you are not always.  What the implications are, if people are beginning to vote for local reasons or in different patterns than normal, and also related to this, you famously said early on in your leadership that you hoped that this would be the progressive century, the radical century. Are you worried that at this election people split off from Labour as a protest vote for the Lib Dems or whatever, and how do you get them back to Labour, was it just Iraq or do you accept that it might have been more than that?

Prime Minister:

Well first of all I think that it was not uniform and there were local factors that played a part, though I think it depended on what type of people in a sense were in which type of seat, so you got different results even within the same region. And I think the reason for that was that the country had decided it did not want a change of government, now whatever they had decided about wanting a government with a smaller majority is another matter, but they decided that they didn’t want a change of government and they didn’t think there was going to be a change of government. And so I think people felt more able to make a protest here or there on various issues. And as I say, I think the key to this is understanding, this is the consequence of being new Labour in the centre ground, this is the second point. Because we are in the centre ground we have vulnerabilities to the left of us and to the right of us. The vulnerability to the right is on issues like tax and immigration, the vulnerability was on things like Iraq and tuition fees and so on, and public service reform even which some people obviously strongly disagreed with.

Question:

You have set out today a huge package of proposals for this third term, a complete renewal of public services for a new age you say, some of the big cheeses, pensions, council tax, nuclear, all of those things.  That is a huge programme of reform, and yet how can you realistically drive that through when you have a reduced majority, MPs are already talking about your diminishing authority, you yourself are talking about the need for a smooth transition of power. How can you achieve all of that on top of all of these hurdles?

Prime Minister:

We have a manifesto and people are going to have to implement that manifesto, and I have got no doubt at all that in the end people want to do that. And you are right, it is a very bold agenda for change and reform, but that is what it is about. And the country elected us again, and in a sense I felt they were saying to us look we want you to sort this, this and this out that we don’t think you have paid enough attention to, some of these issues to do with crime, disorder, asylum and immigration.  Now I might feel that we were paying attention to that, but they think no you have got to get those things sorted. But on the rest of it they were saying get on and do it, if you are in for a third term we want to know by the end of that third term that we really do have the Health Service and the school system that we elected you to provide in 1997. And so I think that that is what will move it through, and this idea that a majority of 66, I mean again you guys will know better than me, but I think in historic terms since the war, that would be considered a very good majority.  You know the idea that a government can’t get its programme through with a majority of 66 is fatuous, we shouldn’t be in the business if we can’t do that, and we will.

Question:

Prime Minister, following up on Iran, when President Bush was in Europe earlier this year, he was asked about the options should Iran be pursuing a nuclear programme, and he said it was ridiculous to think that anybody was contemplating an attack, but then rapidly corrected himself and said but all options remain on the table. Does the option of force remain on the table as far as you are concerned? And a second European question, if I may.  Are you now reconciled to leaving office without even making the attempt to take Britain into the single European currency?

Prime Minister:

On Iran, what President Bush is saying is perfectly sensible, you can’t say you are taking options off the table, but what he went on to say – I think very sensibly too – is that nobody is talking about invasions of Iran or military action against Iran. We have to make sure that this diplomatic process works, and we will fight very hard to do that. And there is no point in speculating on what happens down the line if you reach an impasse, but there are a lot of processes that have to be gone through before you are at that point, not least the Security Council.  On the euro, it has only been an ambition of mine if the economic conditions are right, and I do say that anybody here who has talked to me privately, never mind publicly, about this issue will know that I have always said the political case for being part of any part of the European project is in my view overwhelming, and always has been, because it is important that Britain is at the centre of Europe. But this is different in this sense that it is an economic union, and you can’t do it unless the economic conditions are in the right place, and they are not at the moment. And as I said in the course of the election campaign, at the moment it is difficult to see in the near future how they are going to come into place, but we keep the option open, there is never any point in closing it off and things can change.

Question:

On this question of the orderly transition, does that mean in effect that you are going to anoint a successor rather then encourage a leadership context, which by its very nature would be a bit disorderly I would imagine? And on the great hoodie debate and parental responsibility, would you actually stop Euan and Nicky from wearing hoodies?

Prime Minister:

Mmm, I don’t think they do as a matter of fact.  Incidentally, on the first bit I have got nothing more to say really.  On the so-called hoodie debate, it is about making people feel safe and in control. Anybody who has ever experienced, as probably we all have, a sense of fear when you are out in the street and you feel menaced or intimidated, or if you have ever been mugged or burgled, you know what it is like to have that sense of fear.  Now I can’t say that we are going to abolish that, it is just ridiculous, but what you can say is that people feel it has got out of hand, and things can symbolise that, and I don’t think there is anything wrong with a shopping centre saying look I am sorry, but just for the sake of the feeling of safety amongst the people who are using this centre, we are going to say no there are certain things we are not going to allow here, and I think that is fine and I actually agree with it. And I think then a whole series of other questions that I was talking about earlier come up for debate and resolution, but I think it is an important part of trying to create, as I say, a modern society where it is free from prejudice but not free from rules.  Now I am not saying that civil liberties aren’t important, but I think the change in my generation and younger on the progressive side of politics is that we keep all the first part, and what we are saying is that the balance has gone wrong on the second part and our job is actually to make sure that decent law abiding people aren’t put in fear, aren’t frightened of going down to the shops, which I know a lot of elderly people are. A couple of times during the election campaign, men in their 50s I suppose they would be, to which I feel a certain affiliation, were saying to me that they wouldn’t take their wife through the town centre on a Friday or Saturday night.  Now I object to that, I just feel that is wrong. Why shouldn’t they be able to do that? Now if people want to go out and they want to have a few drinks on a Friday and Saturday night, they should do that, they don’t have to go and beat the place up, or be crowded outside on the street afterwards, you know bottles in hand, shouting abuse at people who are passing by. And I think if we really sit down and work out how we are going to deal with that, we could deal with it, and that is what we should do.

Question:

Prime Minister, what is your response to the parting shots of David Trimble, and indeed Seamus Mallon, that by their charge, side deals done by you and Bertie Ahern with Sinn Fein and others effectively destroyed the centre ground in Northern Irish politics?  Equally on that point, do you feel any sense of shared responsibility for the demise of David Trimble and his party in Northern Ireland, and with the forthcoming announcement expected from the IRA, is there any decisive action that you can take if it proves, as other announcements have, to be too ambivalent, too little, too late?

Prime Minister:

Well I can answer both of those things together, Bernard, because if I can say this very frankly to Seamus Mallon, whom I have got a lot of time and respect for, but he knows perfectly well that I used to sit in my room and say to him, are you prepared to go ahead without Sinn Fein, because if they are not prepared to give up violence in the Republican movement, the moderate centre can only move forward if you are prepared to move forward with the UUP. But I have got to say to you, he never was willing to say that, and I don’t think that is the position of the SDLP today even. So you know I can’t make the moderate centre go forward, I can’t determine that, in the end it is for the parties to determine that. And I think that what David Trimble did in Northern Ireland was immensely brave, and I hope very much that that is recognised, and I am sure it will be when people do an historical analysis of this, but I have got to work with the outcome that the electorate have given, and that is the outcome they have given. And I am still actually very hopeful that we can resolve it, and I think sometimes with the interplay between the different Unionist parties, it has been very unclear exactly who is going to end up on top, but I think that when it became apparent that the UUP couldn’t make the deal with Sinn Fein, the DUP gained from that.  Now I hope the DUP are prepared to share power, provided there is a clear, unequivocal and complete giving up of violence, and if there isn’t, I will be left in the same position again.  And the moderates in Northern Ireland who want to make progress, I am happy to make progress with them, but I can’t force them to do it, and in particular I can’t force the SDLP to move forward with say the DUP and the UUP and without Sinn Fein if they are not prepared to do it. And I also think the reality is, and always has been, it is better to have an inclusive settlement.  The reason, and I am not actually criticising the SDLP for it, I am just stating the fact, and the truth is that this now rests on one thing really, it rests on the absolute unequivocal cessation, giving up, of all forms of violence and a complete embrace of democratic politics, it is the only way forward in Northern Ireland. But I can’t in the end make up the electors’ minds for them.

Question:

You lost 47 seats, maybe most of them because of the Iraq war, you followed America and their wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and maybe you didn’t listen for the British Muslim community who have shown a very good participation in the election.  So what are you going to do regarding Iraq, is there any idea of withdrawal from Iraq, and are you going to listen more to the British Muslim community?

Prime Minister:

First of all I think it is right to say that not all British Muslims voted in the same way, and that is actually a very healthy thing for our democracy. The second thing to say is that I am afraid I am very proud of the fact that we have got a democracy in Afghanistan, and people are trying to get a proper functioning democracy in Iraq, and we will stick there and see the job through, because that is what we do. And if that happens, the reason why there is such an attempt to destabilise the political process in Iraq at the moment is because I think that those people who are causing these terrible terrorist acts in Iraq, they have a very, very clear strategy, they have a clearer strategy in my view than many people do in this country and other parts of the west, they know that if we succeed in Iraq, that extremism is finished, and that is why they are trying to stop the Iraqi people, helped by us, achieve their democracy, but we have got to stick there and see it through, in my view.

Question:

Given the share of the votes by the three main parties at this election and the number of seats they won, would you describe the first past the post system as fair?

Prime Minister:

I know the Independent is getting very interested in this debate, but the trouble with any electoral system is that it can lead to different types of results in which people claim are unfair for different types of reasons. But the problem with PR systems is that you can often have a result where a small party actually holds the balance of power, and that is unfair as well.  I have also got to give you my frank view, that if this was a straight Labour/Tory fight, if people said right the only way is Labour or Tory, I don’t think there is any doubt what the outcome of the election would have been, and I think if it had been Labour versus Lib Dem it would have been the same, and it might even have been, if it had been Tory versus Lib Dem, they would have gone Tory.  I don’t think you can tell, in other words, that the existence of the third party with this amount of vote means that people were actually undecided about the government.

Question:

When North East, the Development Agency, launched a £15 million strategy yesterday to entice people to the north east, make people proud of the north east, it is called Passionate People, Passionate Places, you hinted in a recent newspaper that you are a passionate person, can you say what you are passionate about in the north east and what you think other people should be passionate about there?

Prime Minister:

The great thing about the north east is the standard and the quality of life that people have.  It is a fantastic place to be, to work, to live. You have got in Newcastle I think one of the great cities in Europe today, you have got not just great culture in the north east but also very good public services, and there is certainly I think a buzz and a vigour about the north east that has been remarkable over these past few years, and I think we have got lots to be proud of in the north, and some great football teams.

Question:

A lot of Londoners will be glad to hear you again say how much you prioritise London schools.  You have appointed Andrew Adonis to look at London schools, can you tell us what is he going to be looking at specifically, and are we going to be looking at some new types of school in London beyond the ones that we already know about perhaps?

Prime Minister:

Well the key thing I think people will find is that when the City Academy programme is really driven through, and there will be 60 of them – 60 Secondary schools – many of them schools that are taking over from schools that are badly failing, that will make a big difference in London. But again we have got to ask the question, I mean I think overall in the country it is something like, I don’t know, 8%, maybe a little bit more than that, of parents send their kids to private school, in London it is over 20% in the inner city areas. You have got to ask the question about that, and I want a school system in London good enough so that middle class parents feel real confidence in sending their children to state schools. And it is not just City Academies, I think also some of the new freedoms that will come in with the foundation schools are important as well, and I still think there is a big way to go as well in developing programmes like the Teach First programme for example that encourages high quality graduates to come in and spend a few years in teaching before they then go on to do something else, and there is a lot of support for this.  I have seen these teachers myself, they are people who may go on after a few years and they will become, I don’t know, merchant bankers or people working in the city, but for a few years of their life they are going to teach, and there are all sorts of imaginative programmes like that that we can learn from and develop.

Question:

Are you actually happy for the reform of the House of Lords to be very way down on your priority list, and therefore maybe not to have met all during this parliament?

Prime Minister:

No, I want to think very carefully about the House of Lords reform, but the important thing is that you can only get the reform through on a free vote in the end, I mean a major reform of the House of Lords, and it is never going to happen in any other way, and it is going to be quite tough I think to get the consensus on it. I am kind of a bit undecided on some aspects of it myself.

Question:

Given Sir David King’s comments this morning about climate change and the energy gap, what is your personal view on permitting one more generation of nuclear power stations, and how soon do you expect a decision to be taken on this?

Prime Minister:

I am not sure exactly when this comes up for decision, but it will have to be a decision taken in this parliament.  My intuition has always been cost and public acceptability, but you do have to have this debate and there can’t be a debate on climate change without a serious consideration of it, but I have never changed my view that whatever the intellectual answer may be, you will never get a new generation in nuclear power stations until you have dealt with these two issues to do with cost and acceptability that develop, or that lie very much around this issue of waste and how you tackle it.

Question:

If the French vote No, which they seem likely to do, on 29 May in the referendum for the EU Constitution, doesn’t it really get you off the hook, and do you absolutely pledge to go ahead with a UK referendum in 2006, and is that a Blair promise or a Labour government promise?

Prime Minister:

Well first of all, to state the blindingly obvious, we don’t know what is going to happen in the French referendum. But we have said we will have a referendum on the constitution in any event, and that is a government promise.

Question:

Moving to Iraq, if I may, the situation has deteriorated dramatically and more people are dying needlessly these days than any other time since the removal of Saddam Hussein. The Iraqis are actually finding themselves trapped between the insurgents and the multinational force, but how long do you think ordinary Iraqis shall wait before they can resume their ordinary lives?

Prime Minister:

My information from what people tell me about the attitude of Iraqis is that they are very angry about the terrorism and the insurgency, but they have got no doubt at all what is going on, and what is going on is that the terrorists and insurgents are trying to derail their democracy, and they want their democracy, and the Iraqi security forces are building up the whole time. And it is true these suicide bombs of course are absolutely terrible because they are killing innocent people in terrorist acts, but politically you have got a Sunni Defence Minister. Iraq is changing, and that is why I say the strange thing about this is that the terrorists and insurgents have a far clearer sense of the importance of this, I think, than a lot of people over in our part of the world. They know that if Iraq becomes a democracy they are finished, not just in Iraq, they are finished everywhere. The whole basis of the extremist case is that American power is used to suppress Muslim people.  If what actually happens in Afghanistan and in Iraq, and then increasingly across the Middle East, is that people are liberated from dictatorship – religious or secular -  and start to govern themselves, that is an end to that extremism, and that is why I have always said what is at heart here is absolutely fundamental, it is a battle between democrats and terrorists. And I think you will find that the Iraqis themselves, their anger is obvious, but so is also their determination that they are going to carry on electing their government, you know 8 million of them came out and voted, and in December’s elections they will come out and vote again, and this time I think you will find that Sunnis participate, and they will want to participate because that is the future.  So it is very difficult, but it is a battle that there is only one side to be on, and the consequences of victory or defeat are immense, and not just for Iraq, they are immense for the security of this country here.  If we succeed in Iraq in establishing democracy, this country will be a safer place.

Briefing took place at 11:00 | Search for related news

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