PM’s Regional Visit
Asked to clarify who the Prime Minister would meet in the South West today, the PMOS replied that he would meet members of the armed forces. He would visit Westland Helicopters, the Royal Naval College in Dartmouth and the Royal Marines training Centre in Lympstone, Devon.
Asked if the Prime Minister would attend the Iraq debate in 10 days, the PMOS said that the Prime Minister did not normally attend such debates. He said that the Prime Minister had indicated yesterday that once Operation Sinbad and the assessment had been completed, he would make a statement to Parliament.
The Leader said that, on Monday, January 15, the House would debate the second reading of the Planning Gain Supplement (Preparations) Bill (John Healey for the Government). On Tuesday, January 16, MPs would discuss the second reading of the Pensions Bill (John Hutton and James Purnell). On Wednesday, January 17, there would be a debate on the Report from the Joint Committee on Conventions, which deals with the relationship between both Houses (Jack Straw); on Thursday, January 18, the business would be a debate on Anti-Social Behaviour on a Motion for the Adjournment of the House (Tony McNulty). Private Members Bills would be taken on Friday, January 19.
The Leader added that, as he had indicated during Business Questions earlier, it was likely that the House would debate defence issues in the week beginning January 29 or the following week. Asked if it was too early, at that stage, to debate the Trident issue, Mr Straw pointed out that, by convention, there were five defence-related debates in the annual parliamentary calendar. The next one was due in a couple of weeks. He also pointed out that he had been asked by an MP if it was possible to raise Afghanistan in the Iraq/Middle East debate; the answer was "with difficulty", but it would be possible during the subsequent defence debate.
Asked if, given his previous experience as Home Secretary, he was surprised that two Ministers appeared to have seen a letter which had raised a potential problem involving convicts from abroad, the Leader said that, firstly, he had not seen the text of the letters. He did not wish to comment.
Assets Recovery Agency
Asked about plans to wind it up, the Leader said that when it had been established the Government initially did not have clear plans to merge the National Criminal Intelligence Service, the National Crime Squad and the enforcement agency parts of the Customs and Revenue. It had made every sense at that stage to have a free-standing Assets Recovery Agency. With the launch of the Serious and Organised Crime Agency, it made every sense to merge the ARA.
The Leader, asked if there was any sign of a White Paper, said there was. He would be studying a further chapter to the proposed document later today. While he did not wish to quote a precise time, the aim was to publish soon - well before Easter. Publication would be followed by procedural decisions and then by a vote on composition. The all-party working group, which he chaired, had just had its latest meeting and was working well.
Asked if an announcement would be made next week, the Leader responded by saying that it was imminent.
The Prime Minister's Official Spokesman (PMOS) told journalists that Alan Johnson had briefed his colleagues on the GCSE results which showed that the number of secondary schools that did not meet the GCSE threshold that now fallen to 47 out of over 3200 schools. That compared to a figure of 600 in 1997. There were 500 schools where less than 25% of pupils did not get five good GCSEs with English and Maths in 2006, compared with 1,262 in 1997. We raised the bar to place greater emphasis on English and Maths within the target.
Asked for further insight into the Cabinet's discussion on Iraq, the Prime Minister's Official Spokesman (PMOS) said that it was led by the Prime Minister, Margaret Beckett and Des Browne. As the Prime Minister had set out yesterday in the Commons, the starting point was to recognise the situations in Baghdad and Basra were very different. 80-90% of the violence in Iraq was in or around the Baghdad area. The situation in Basra, whilst not perfect, and partly as a result of Operation Sinbad, had improved considerably. The underlying symmetry in our approach, and in the new US approach was that what the UK, the US and most importantly, the Iraqis' strategy was about was to create the time and the space for the Iraqi Government to establish its authority, both in terms of security, but also in terms of the building the Iraqi economy. That meant a strategy of clearing areas of terrorists, holding them, and then building through reconstruction. That clear "hold and build" strategy was what we had been doing in Operation Sinbad since November, and that was going well. As the PMOS had said yesterday, what happened in the future would all depend on what happened on the ground in Basra.
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