» Wednesday, November 9, 2005

Terror Bill

The Prime Minister’s Official Spokesman (PMOS) informed journalists that the Prime Minister was back at No10, and he would be holding interviews later. In general terms, clearly the Government was disappointed by the result of the Terror Bill vote, but as the Prime Minister said both on Monday and again at PMQs this afternoon, he believed that he thought it was the right to do, and that it was better to put it to the vote and lose, rather than not put it to the vote. That view was formed by the fact that the overwhelming wave of expert police opinion and public opinion as stated in various polls, supported what the Government was trying to do. Parliament had clearly reached a different decision, and that decision had to be respected. However, equally, given the nature of the terrorist threats that we faced, the debate in general terms would continue, if not specifically within the terms of this Bill.

The PMOS also said that what should not be lost sight of was the fact that the Bill still contained major measures which would help defeat the fight against terrorism, and they would continue to do so.

Asked if the Prime Minister saw the vote in any way as a defeat on his personal authority or position, the PMOS said that as we had said all the way through, we did not see this as a matter of confidence in the Prime Minister, as it was a proposal which was put forward by the police and which we supported. We believed that the case put forward by the police was compelling, and the public appeared to agree with that. Parliament was not convinced by that case, but the issues at the heart of the terror bill would continue, and it was unlikely that the police would change their minds. The PMOS said that unfortunately, terrorism was not going to go away, so circumstances would force us to continue to debate this issue, but we accepted that Parliament had spoken.

Asked if we would return to it in the House of Lords, the PMOS replied that Parliament had spoken in terms of the duration issue in the current legislation. The PMOS said he was speaking in general terms, and the circumstances unfortunately were that terrorism remained a very real threat. Therefore the issues at the heart of this debate, which included how the police dealt with the complexities of modern terrorism, and how to gather evidence, were by their very natures not going to go away.

Asked if the vote failing to get through Parliament had hampered the fight against terrorism, the PMOS replied that the reason the Prime Minister had argued for the 90 days case was because he believed it was in the best security interests for the country. Parliament had decided otherwise. The Prime Minister had said at PMQs that each MP had to reach their own decisions. Although the vast majority of backbenchers had supported the Government’s decision on the 90 days case, MPs on the whole had not. Regarding the fight against terrorism, the PMOS said that the Prime Minister had made it very clear that less than 90 days was not in the best security interests of the country, so clearly, a result like this was not in the best security interests of the country.

Asked if there might be an option of instead compromising on somewhere between 28 and 90 days, the PMOS said that the House of Commons had already spoken on the duration issue, and we had to respect that they had spoken about it. Circumstances would force us to address this issue in the future, but in terms of this particular bill, the House of Commons had spoken.

Asked what the Prime Minister’s mood was like at the moment, and was he surprised at the scale of the defeat, the PMOS replied that the Prime Minister had indicated on Monday that we had always accepted that this was going to be a fight. There was traditionally a keen debate on this particular element of counter-terrorism, therefore we always knew that this was going to be a fight. The Prime Minister was, however, absolutely convinced that given the weight of police and public opinion that it was the right thing to do to put the 90 days case to the vote. Therefore, the Prime Minister accepted Parliament’s decision, but was of a different view, as were the police.

Put to the PMOS that on Monday, the Prime Minister claimed the numbers were not there, and that the decision on Monday turned out to be the correct decision, the PMOS said that the summary was incorrect, and it would be wrong to put a number less than 90 and pretend that it was in some ways in the best security interests of the country. The Prime Minister had made it clear on Monday that he did not believe that anything less than 90 days was in the best security issues of the country, so therefore, we were not going to pretend that we had got the result that we believed was needed on this occasion.

Asked if there had been mixed messages coming out of Downing Street and the Home Office, the PMOS replied: no. The PMOS said that the Home Secretary had been absolutely consistent, both in public and in private in expressing his view that the case made by the police for 90 days was compelling. Equally, however, people knew, we had acknowledged that we had to get the case through Parliament. There was no contradiction being between on the one hand, arguing the case for 90 days because people thought that was the right thing to do, and on the other hand, acknowledging that there would be a fight to get it. That was what we had done consistently and honestly.

Put that the Prime Minister was "clearly very angry in the Commons", and was he angered by the result, the PMOS replied that the Prime Minister was angry during PMQs because of some of the remarks that he was responding to. The Prime Minister was firmly of the view that 90 days was in the best security interest of the country, and he was obviously disappointed that he did not get that result. The Prime Minister, as a Parliamentarian respected the will of Parliament, but he was not going to back away from his view that the case put by the police was compelling. Circumstances would mean that this would be a continuing matter for debate.

Asked did the Prime Minister not think his inability to get something through the Commons reflected in some way on his role as Prime Minister, the PMOS said that this in many ways was, and always had been a one-off issue. It was an issue in which there had traditionally been a tension in Parliament between those who believed that everything had to be done to protect the country’s security, and the others who wished to protect civil liberties. Indeed, several of this afternoon’s speakers in the debate had made that very point. Therefore, not only the Prime Minister but also expert police opinion, public opinion and the vast majority of the Government’s backbenchers on the one hand, and the majority of MPs in the House of Commons on the other. That was the position, but it was on this one issue.

Asked if the Tories’ votes could be considered "soft", the PMOS said it was for others to say why they voted as they did, not for him.

Asked if the Government had put down a motion for 28 to 90 days instead of only 90 days, would have resulted in both sides of the House voting for a compromise, the PMOS said the question was hypothetical. The important point was that as the Prime Minister had said on Monday, people should not pretend that anything less than 90 days was in the best security interests of the country. In terms of the police, it was not what they wished for, therefore the Prime Minister believed it was the right and honest thing to do to go for the 90 days, and we believed that was right.

Put to the PMOS that the Prime Minister took a big gamble on the vote, and what did that now say about his political judgment and authority now he had lost, the PMOS replied that his judgment was that 90 days was the right thing for the country. On that, he was supported by the vast majority of expert opinion from the police, public opinion, and MPs on the Government benches.

Asked if the Prime Minister agreed with some MPs who had said that the vote result was damaging for the Government, the PMOS said that as he had said, this was a one-off issue, and there had always been a strong division within Parliament on how to handle these issues. That had to be recognised. Equally, however, what people needed to recognise was that if the public opinion polls were correct, the public fully supported the Prime Minister in the stand that he took on this issue.

Asked if it was more likely that people would die in terror attacks as a result of a 28 days result, the PMOS said the journalist was coming close to putting words in his mouth, and he was not going to use exaggerated language, but would state it as baldly as the Prime Minister did. The judgment of the police was that the security of the country would have been better served by 90 days.

Asked if that meant that people would be more likely to die if less than 90 days were to go through, the PMOS said again that the judgment of the police was that we would be more secure, and the Prime Minister agreed with the judgement of the police if 90 days had passed.

Briefing took place at 9:00 | Search for related news

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