Asked whether the Prime Minister's Spokesman (PMS) had a comment on open skies, the PMS said she believed that Douglas Alexander would be making a broader statement later on today. However, the Prime Minister had been concerned that we got the best possible deal at this first stage, and we believed that was what we had got. It was a good deal for UK interest as a whole, passengers would benefit from increased competition, lower fares and more convenient services.
Asked whether the Prime Minister was optimistic that a deal would be reached before Monday, the PMS said we did not get into making optimistic or pessimistic predications. It was clear there was a wide understanding that the deadline was Monday. There had been indications from the DUP that process had been made, and obviously the Chancellor had his meeting this morning on finance, but it was now for the parties to make their decisions.
Asked whether the Prime Minister was disappointed that Peter Mandelson had announced that he would not seek a second term as EU Commissioner, the PMS said that this was a matter for the future, and she would not get drawn into it now.
The Leader announced: Monday, March 26, continuation of the Budget debate (David Miliband and Ed Balls for the Government), starting after an oral statement on Zimbabwe. Tuesday, March 27 - conclusion of the Budget debate (Alistair Darling and Stephen Timms), starting after an oral statement on Northern Ireland. Wednesday, March 28 - motions relating to House of Commons matters: Communications Allowance, Notices of Questions during September, Select Committees (Reports) and Parliamentary Contributory Pension Fund (Jack Straw), followed by a motion to approve a Statutory Instrument on Casinos (Tessa Jowell and Richard Caborn). Thursday, March 29 - motion on the Easter Recess Adjournment.
House Questions in September
Asked for clarification, the Leader said that, for a couple of years, there had been September sittings, but the House had then gone off the idea. MPs then had voted on a motion for the continuation of September sittings, and it had been defeated overwhelmingly. He had introduced, on a temporary basis, a two-week period for MPs to table written PQs to Ministers in 2006 before the start of party conferences, which had worked well. The motion before the House next week would aim to make it a permanent feature.
Zimbabwe/Northern Ireland Statements
Asked which Minister would make the oral statements, Mr Straw said it would be a Foreign Office minister for the former. He noted that he had been criticised for saying previously that there was a problem of availability of FCO ministers. They went around the world and, sometimes, it was difficult to meet the demands of the House, much though everyone tried. Asked later if there was any specific issue on Zimbabwe for the statement being made, the Leader said that it had not been possible to have a statement to the House today because the unavailability of Ministers. Another reason was that he had hoped, as did the Foreign Secretary, that it would have been possible to find a slot for a debate before the Easter recess. That had not been possible for practical reasons. They were still trying to find an opportunity for a debate after the recess. He thought a statement, meanwhile, would be a good idea. Pressed on the statement, Mr Straw said there were some important issues about Zimbabwe, including the UK's action to tighten sanctions. The UK was also raising the matter in the reformed Human Rights Council of the UN. He understood that it was also being raised in the Security Council. There was also the issue of the EU-Africa summit, which was very tricky because of recent history, which had meant that it had not been possible for the EU formally to engage with the AU on Zimbabwe.
Asked if he had any sense of how difficult it would be to get approval next week, the Leader said he did not in terms of numbers. He was sure that both Blackpool MPs would be speaking for its case and they might be joined by others in adjoining constituencies. He noted that there was an Early Day Motion on the subject, which had won the support of quite a lot of MPs. He confirmed that it would be a whipped vote as Government business. The Leader referred to the report this week of the Merits Committee of the House of Lords. It had criticised the Order, but the Government was not accepting the criticism.
Lord Turnbull’s Comments
The Leader was asked if there had been any further progress since his statement on the report by Sir Hayden Phillips. Mr Straw said that arrangements were being made to meet the other parties. It had not happened yet. Asked if he had any names, he said it was up to others to disclose their role. In response to a question about contacts with the minor parties, the Leader said he had written to the party leaders in Northern Ireland to say that he would arrange to meet them, but he was aware that they had other matters on their plate at present. He was making arrangements also to meet others parties, including a meeting with the Scottish National Party, which was in hand. They had an entirely legitimate interest in the issue. He had moved as quickly as he could.
Deputy Leader of Commons Post
Asked if he missed Nigel Griffiths, who resigned from the Government last week, Mr Straw said he had been a very good deputy. Asked about a replacement, the Leader said that such dispositions were a matter for the Prime Minister.
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