Asked whether the Prime Minister's Spokesman (PMS) had any comments on suggestions that Iran may have gone back on their promise to release the UK service woman, the PMS said these issues were being discussed at the UN. Our Ambassador at the UN had said he hoped there would be a statement hopefully later on today. Asked whether COBRA was meeting daily, the PMS said COBRA was meeting regularly. Asked whether Downing Street was chairing the meeting, the PMS said no.
The Leader announced business for the week after the East recess would be: Monday, April 16 - second reading of the Mental Health Bill [Lords] (Patricia Hewitt and Rosie Winterton for the Government); Tuesday, April 17 - Opposition Day (8th Allotted Day): debate on an Opposition motion, subject to be announced; Wednesday, April 18 - remaining stages of the Pensions Bill (James Purnell and James Plaskitt); Thursday, April 19 - motion to take note of the Outstanding Reports of the Public Accounts Committee to which the Government has replied (Details will be given in the Official Report), followed by a debate on Marine Environment on a motion for the Adjournment of the House (Ben Bradshaw); Friday, April 20 - Private Members Bills.
Asked if the policy was "still alive", the Leader said it was, because the powers in the original Act remained and, as Tessa Jowell had said last night in a brief statement after the decision in the House of Lords, the Government was reflecting on how to take the matter forward. He said the Government would come back to Parliament in due course on it. Pressed further, the Leader said he was not in a position to go into detail. He suggested that journalists should read the resolution passed in the House of Lords by three votes and pointed out that a lot of the concerns had been about process. That was being looked at, but he declined to comment in further detail at present. Decisions were not required overnight because of the Easter recess and the forthcoming period of elections.
The Leader was asked, from his previous experience as Foreign Secretary dealing with the issue, if he would characterise the present situation. Mr Straw said that the negotiations were being handled by Margaret Beckett and the Prime Minister, together with other Foreign Office Ministers and diplomatic staff. He wished to be very careful about what he said in response to the questioner.
Parliamentary Standards Committee Report
Asked if he agreed with the conclusion of a report criticising the conduct of the Leader of the Opposition, Mr Straw said he did and was quite clear that the Committee was quite correct to say that he had been "ill-advised" in directly promoting the issue of access to his office and party fund-raising. Mr Straw said that it underlined the need to impose much more effective spending limits on the parties, because it was that issue which was driving the need for funds in all the main parties. Donation caps may or may not have a role, but unless the total amount that could be spent either at or between elections was pinned down effectively, he thought that the kind of conduct identified in the Committee report would continue. The Leader said that was not good for British politics or public life.
Machinery of Government Change
Asked if he was happy with the proposal to split up the Home Office, Mr Straw said that he was perfectly happy about it. When speculation first appeared about two months ago, he recalled saying in a radio interview at the time that there had been a change from the time when he had been Home Secretary. Then, terrorism has been a serious concern but, following September 11 and July 7, it had become a total preoccupation anyone who was Home Secretary. He had pointed out that the nature of the demands on the Home Office and the Home Secretary had changed as a result of the change in the terrorist threat. The work of the Home Office had always been subject to adjustment. John Reid, in his comments to the House earlier, had made the point that, originally, there were just three departments of state - the Exchequer, the Foreign Office and the Home Office. Every domestic department now was an off-shoot of the Home Office.
Asked why the Home Secretary was effectively forced to make an oral statement, the Prime Minister's Official Spokesman (PMOS) replied that there was no precedent, and we had not given an oral statement in the past for changes to DEFRA for example. The Home Secretary was perfectly content to go to the House and answer questions, and we had been planning a Written Ministerial Statement from the Prime Minister on this all along. There was no great drama about this.
Asked if the Prime Minister was expecting to visit Manchester in more triumphant circumstances, the PMOS replied that he would take it the journalist was referring to casinos, and that the Government had won the vote in the Commons last night. Ministers would want to reflect on where we were, but as Tessa Jowell told Cabinet this morning, this policy was very much alive.
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