Asked to clarify what Margaret Beckett had said in the House of Commons regarding Iraq, the PMOS said what she meant was what she had said before, and what the Prime Minister had said in his interview with Pakistani television, which is there is Operation Sinbad going on in Basra at the moment, which is going reasonably well and dependent on the outcome of that will depend on whether we can transfer Basra to the Iraqis. You have to see how Operation Sinbad goes, and as Margaret Beckett said it may have implications for troops. In terms of troop numbers, until you see how that goes any speculation about troop numbers is precisely just that, speculation. The starting point is the substance on the ground, the conditions that are there, and that will be affected by Operation Sinbad and the ability of the Iraqi forces to deal with those conditions. Those two things are what you make the judgement on, and that is conditions based.
Asked what was the latest thinking on Lebanon - what happened, who was to blame, and could we ever trust Syria again, the Prime Minister's Official Spokesman (PMOS) said that the honest answer at this stage was that we did not know, and it would take time for the truth to emerge. In terms of Syria, we had made it clear, and Sir Nigel Sheinwald had made it clear during his recent visit there, that Syria's conduct in Lebanon was one of the criteria by which we would judge whether they were playing a constructive role in the Middle East as a whole, or not. Reiterating that, however, should not be taken as pointing the finger at Syria, because what we should not do at this stage was make assumptions. However, that was the bottom line in terms of our approach to Syria.
Asked to comment on the number of civilian deaths, as published in today's UN report, and also the recent figure of 2 million people having being left in Iraq so far, the PMOS said that nobody underplayed the difficulties there were in Iraq, but he warned that people should be careful. There was a tendency in some of the reporting of this figure for people to almost suggest that if only we were to leave, then the killing would stop. Most assessments, and certainly that of the Iraqi Government, were the reverse. That was why the Iraqi Government had asked us to stay, and that was why we were there with a UN mandate. The important thing was that we confronted those who were responsible for these killings, which was not the multinational force, and that we put in place a process by which we supported the democratically elected Government of Iraq. That was what we were doing.
Asked if it was correct that MPs would not be given a vote option by option, the PMOS said that what the Prime Minister had said was these were matters that would be discussed through the normal channels. This was a step by step process; there would be discussion of the strategic context, then a white paper and then a debate and a vote. Asked if there would be a presentation by Des Browne to Cabinet on this, the PMOS said he would brief on Cabinet, after Cabinet, not before Cabinet. Asked, as it would be a Government proposed motion, would the vote be whipped, the PMOS said he would not be drawn. Asked if the PMOS could confirm that Trident would be on the agenda for Cabinet this Thursday, the PMOS reiterated that he would brief on Cabinet after the event, not before.
Asked if the call to President Bashir would contain a tone along the lines of do this or else face other measures, the PMOS said that the Prime Minister would be very clear to President Bashir that we believe there is a way to improve the situation in Darfur in a short time scale if the Kofi Annan plan is adhered to, if not the President will be very clear as to what the alternative would mean for him and his government.
Asked if there had been any contact with the Prime Minister's Office by the Metropolitan police, the PMOS said that as always, he would not comment on a police investigation. However, the answer today was still: no.
Asked as the Ofsted report showed many schools still underperforming if it made the Government feel the need to rethink its education policy, the PMOS said that the report had showed, and what the Chief Executive of Ofsted had said, was it showed that schools were improving, but what Ofsted, quite rightly, were doing was constantly raising the bar, and it was against the rising bar that schools were judged. Even if the figures are taken as presented 90 percent of the schools were good or very good; that is a good figure.
Asked by Sky if the new fingerprinting devices were another example of the big brother society, the PMOS replied that an alternative way of asking the question might have been was it a commonsense measure which would stop police having to waste time trying to identify people's true identity. Most people therefore would see it as a commonsense measure.
Walking to School
Asked why was the Government spending £15 million to get children to walk to school, the PMOS replied that as those who walked to school would know, it was a very healthy way to do it. For further details, people should walk to the department to find out more!
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