Grace and favour
Asked about the disposal of ministers' grace and favour homes, the Prime Minister's Official Spokesman (PMOS) said that the process of consideration continued. Put to him there was a Home Office house which was sitting empty and given that there were new powers for local authorities to seize homes empty for 6 months or more, the PMOS said that he would draw this to the attention of the relevant authorities and pass on the journalist's concern about this matter. Asked if this didn't send out the wrong signal, the PMOS said that these were matters which would be sorted out at the appropriate time.
Aung San Suu Kyi
The Prime Minister's Official Spokesman told journalists that the Prime Minister had released a statement regarding Aung San Suu Kyi's birthday. The Prime Minister said that he was "bitterly disappointed that today Aung San Suu Kyi would spend her 61st birthday under house arrest, cut off from her family and friends, having had her house arrest extended yet again on 27th May. This was utterly unacceptable and goes against everything the UN Secretary General, most of Burma's neighbours, the EU and the wider international community have repeatedly called for".
Police force amalgamation
Put to him that the Home Secretary had kicked the proposed regional police mergers into the 'long grass' despite the Prime Minister saying that they should be sorted out as quickly as possible, the PMOS said that we should be clear about this. First of all this was an issue of effectiveness. It had been Her Majesty's inspectorate who spoke first and foremost about the need to rationalise the police services and achieve maximum effectiveness. Equally we needed to make sure that the police remained accountable at a local level. So there was a balance that needed to be struck. The Home Secretary would take this forward in his own way.
The PMOS welcomed the announcement today by Prime Minister Maliki that the Iraqis were taking over full control of Al Muthanna province, as pre-figured during our visit to Baghdad. That meant that they would take control of civil institutions, as well as security responsibilities. It did not mean, however, that the Australian, Japanese and the small number of British troops there would pull out tomorrow, but it did mean that there was a gradual transition, with the Iraqis taking control. The PMOS said that the Iraqi security forces were already in control of many day to day operations there, and we were there increasingly in a support role, and the transition would begin to take place. It was a significant step on the way to Iraq taking control of its own destiny, and therefore, we welcomed that.
Asked if he could give further details concerning information that might be released under the proposed Sarah's law, based on the USA's Megan's law, the PMOS said no because we were starting the process of learning what lessons could be learned from the USA. It was important that that should take place. That was what the Home Secretary had said Gerry Sutcliffe would do. Asked for clarification of what the Home Secretary had meant, the PMOS said that on the one hand you had to try and give the public useful information whilst at the same time balance the need for individual security. You had to try and work your way through that. In the USA there was a body of experience which was well worth looking at and Gerry Sutcliffe would do that. In the meantime the Home Secretary had moved on the issue of convicted paedophiles being in accommodation near schools. Asked what exactly was changing from measures taken by this Government in the past, the PMOS said that given that there remained a continued community concern on this issue, as anyone who was in touch with the local community could tell you, then it was sensible to look at the lessons to be learned from the United States. Asked if there might be the possibility of lists of names of paedophiles in the public domain, the PMOS said that he was not prejudging anything. People should recognise that the Home Secretary had taken action on the specific issue of paedophiles in probation centres near schools, which was a matter of concern for many people. As the Home Secretary had said, his presumption was that the public should have more information than it had had so far.
Asked if anything had changed from when Jack Straw had ruled out the law to today, the PMOS said that the important and difficult thing in this area was as both the Home Secretary and Gerry Sutcliffe had made clear, was to get the balance right, between on the one hand, protecting the public and giving them as much information as possible, and on the other, ensuring that we did not have viliglantism. That was the balance that had to be struck. What was important, therefore, was that Gerry Sutcliffe went to the United States, and looked at how they did things there. We were not planning immediately to import US laws, but we did need to consider, and it was right to do so, how these operate, and look at the differences, and what had been successful there.
Asked if the Prime Minister was going to take an action in response to the recent change in policy by the International Whaling Commission, the PMOS said that we had a very capable fisheries minister who spoke for the Government on this issue.
Put that the Government had not had the "full picture" of what was known about the 7/7 bombers, as written in the Times today, and how had it responded to a new request for an independent inquiry, the PMOS replied that he did not do book reviews. There had been an objective independent scrutiny of the factors leading up to 7/7. That scrutiny was carried out by a body accountable to Parliament, which was the Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC). That committee had published its findings, and if people looked back at the time of publication, people recognised that it was a serious piece of work.
Put that Vera Baird appeared to say the opposite to the Lord Chancellor about judges, the PMOS said that the Lord Chancellor and the Home Secretary had made clear the Government's view. As a result, we were having a look at the Criminal Justice System, and the Home Secretary and the Lord Chancellor would be carrying out aspects of that. The important thing was that we recognised that there were two things that we needed to balance. On the one hand, there was legitimate public concern, and the Home Secretary had articulated that, and on the other, we had the need to maintain an independent judicial system. The important thing was that we looked and saw how we could ensure that those two remained in kilter, and that was what would happen over the next few weeks.
Asked what the Prime Minister's take was on building more prisons, the PMOS said that as people knew, we had been focused on more prison spaces. The PMOS said in the last two years prison capacity had gone up by 4000, and current programme would deliver around 1000 new places in 2007, taking the total capacity up to 80,400 by 2007. Therefore, we were addressing the issue.
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