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UK PM Spokesman's Briefing 13th March

LOBBY BRIEFING: 11AM MONDAY 13 MARCH 2000


LORD NEILL
The Prime Minister's Official Spokesman (PMOS) said that the Government had welcomed Lord Neill's inquiry into the House of Lords. Ministers in the Lords already voluntarily declared their interests to the same standards as required in the Commons. Peers had been advised by the Chief Whip to declare their interests in full, and many already did so.

BUDGET
Asked whether we should be looking towards a redistributive Budget, the PMOS said we should be looking forward to a Budget which would continue to set out how the Government intended to fulfil its prime objective of running an efficient, stable economy - managing it in such a way that we could build an enterprise economy, but also address the poverty and social justice agenda and rebuild and modernize our public services. Asked whether he would consider this Government to have been redistributive so far, the PMOS said there was rising prosperity founded upon the stable economy which the Chancellor had been able to build as a result of the radical policies he had been pursuing. For example, the windfall levy on the excess profits of the privatised utilities had been used for the New Deal scheme to get young people into work. He was not concerned whether that was called redistribution or not. It was the right thing to do. Our desire was for 'power, welfare and opportunity to be in the hands of the many, not the few'. One of the most important ways of achieving this was to give more people the opportunity to work, more people the opportunity to learn, more people the opportunity to build a life for themselves. Previous Budgets since this Government had come into office had delivered greater prosperity for people, not least through jobs.

Asked to comment on Peter Hain's criticism that the Government was unable to get its message across to the people, the PMOS said that if people were asked whether the Government was managing the economy well, whether the Government was delivering on its promises to create jobs with 800,000 extra in the economy, and whether they were aware of the fact the Government was pursuing a number of policies to address poverty and social justice problems, most people, as Margaret Beckett had said this morning, were aware of it, despite the froth and static and what the Prime Minister called the 'passing frenzies'. In addition, the Prime Minister had made the point in his speech on Friday that it was the job of everyone in the Government to go out and tell the real story. Asked why Margaret Beckett had been on the Today programme this morning rather than Mo Mowlam, the PMOS pointed out that Ms Mowlam was in the US. Moreover, Mrs Beckett was one of the Government's cross-cutting spokespersons.

Asked what the Prime Minister thought the problem was with regard to appealing to people in the heartland, the PMOS said that the point he had been making in his speech on Friday was that the Government's core constituency was the whole country, having been elected by the whole country. The policies being pursued were about policies for the country as a whole. We had to draw a balance on some of the issues. Crucial to that was the attack on poverty and social injustice. The people who benefited most from a properly managed stable economy and from the fact that there were more jobs available were the people who had felt that opportunity and jobs had been denied them. The Prime Minister was saying that the policies we were pursuing were designed to improve the prosperity of people right across the country. In terms of public services, we had acknowledged that some people were frustrated because though they wanted change, they wanted it more quickly. However, we had to resolve the problems step by step, according to what we could actually do consistent with a well-managed economy.

Questioned as to whether the Prime Minister accepted that the heartlands were a problem, the PMOS said the Government was the Government for the whole country. It was in everyone's interests that there were more jobs in the economy than ever before. You only had to look at the record of this Government to grasp its achievements: the NMW, WFTC, New Deal etc.

Asked whether an apparent change in policy on Grammar schools would appeal to the heartlands, the PMOS made clear there was no change and said that everyone, regardless of where they lived, wanted a focus on driving up standards in schools. The vast majority of children were in state schools which were non-selective. The year of the 'read my lips' speech was the year the policy now being implemented was formulated. Mr Blunkett's focus had been on schools for the many not the few. The policy would continue. However, Mr Blunkett's energy and the Government's energy would focus on the schools which served the parents and children of the vast majority of people in this country. Questioned whether the Government wanted to see ballots for Grammar schools, the PMOS said it was a matter for parents in the locality.

Asked if the Government was worried about voter apathy, the PMOS said that if the media continued to be obsessed by voter apathy and went out if its way to demonstrate that it was a big problem without bothering to find out if it was really true, then no one should be surprised if it had that effect. The Government's job was to make sure the public understood what it was doing. When it came to an election, it was up to the Government to make sure that the full record was understood. The Prime Minister had said on Friday that people should not judge the Government on the costs of chairs in the Scottish Parliament. It was important to focus on the big issues - jobs, crime, the economy - and that was what would happen.

Asked whether the Prime Minister was concerned that a bottleneck was growing in terms of the amount of legislation the Government was trying to put through Parliament, the PMOS said no, although we acknowledged there was a lot to get through, and because of what had been going on in the Lords, some Bills were taking longer to reach the statute books than had otherwise been planned.

PUTIN
Asked when the Prime Minister would brief EU and G8 leaders on his visit to St Petersburg at the weekend, the PMOS said that many of them were interested in his impression of Mr Putin. The Prime Minister was meeting Kofi Annan today and he would be surprised if the subject didn't come up in some form. In addition, the Prime Minister as due to meet Wim Kok later in the week and no doubt they would discuss the Prime Minister's visit then.

Asked if the Government was sending spin doctors to Russia as reported in the papers today, the PMOS said no. However, assuming Mr Putin won the Presidential election, Nigel Wicks would offer him advice on the world economy, integration therein, and how to develop small businesses etc. David Miliband was due to visit Russia to explain how the Downing Street Policy Unit worked.

Asked if the Prime Minister had felt reassured that proportionate force had been used in Chechnya, following his visit to St Petersburg, the PMOS said that he felt that we believed it was in everyone's interests that there was some form of objective assessment of that. That was why the more the Red Cross, the Council of Europe and UN were able to monitor that, the better it would be. Mr Putin had been adamant that atrocities had not been committed. Provided that the monitors the Russians had said they would allow in were able to operate in an objective manner, then that would be reassurance in itself. However, the Prime Minister was not in a position to be reassured at this stage.

NORTHERN IRELAND
Asked where we were on Northern Ireland, the PMOS said that there would be continuing contacts this week. There would also be a lot of activity around St Patrick's Day in the US where the key Parties were due to participate in celebrations, which Peter Mandelson would also attend.

Asked the Prime Minister's view of comments made by the Taoiseach with regard to troop reductions, the PMOS said that we were as keen as anybody to have a normal security situation in Northern Ireland. That was what the whole process was about. The comments that people living in those areas made were well known. However, our assessment as regards security had to be based upon the real assessment of the Government's security advisers. Asked whether we would agree with Mr Ahern's view that the British Army in South Armagh caused harassment and annoyance, the PMOS said this wasn't the first time we had heard these accusations. However, we had to have in place the security that was consistent with the threat and the dangers, based on the assessment of our security advisers.

Asked about a new strategy being highlighted by the Taoiseach which required the IRA to say that they would never resort to arms again and whether this was a totally different approach to the Government's Good Friday Agreement (GFA) strategy which required decommissioning to take place by 22 May 2000, the PMOS said that we were still working to implement the GFA in all its parts. Pressed as to why the British and Irish Governments seemed have a different understanding of the GFA, the PMOS said that the Irish Government was working as hard as we were to implement the GFA in full. He had nothing further to add.

KOFI ANNAN
Asked about the Prime Minister's meeting with Kofi Annan later today, the PMOS said that Mr Annan was here to deliver the Commonwealth Lecture. Their meeting would cover a number of foreign policy issues.

Asked to comment on Mr Annan's concerns about getting medical supplies to Iraq, the PMOS said that no one had worked harder in the UN than the British Government to try to get a resolution to some of the issues Mr Annan would no doubt want to talk about in his meeting today with the Prime Minister. The last resolution which had been agreed had been implemented largely through the British Government. It had led to a bigger, better humanitarian programme, and had offered Saddam the prize of sanctions suspension if Iraq co-operated. Ultimately, the question of co-operation lay in Saddam's hands. In addition, Iraq had far more resources of food and medicines than they had let on. We called on Iraq endlessly to order the food and medicines the people needed and to distribute them properly. However, we could not help as much as we liked because of the fact that Saddam continued to play these political games. There was so much we could do, and we had been trying to push for more to be done. However, in the end, if Saddam was not going to use the money he had to obtain food and medicines and distribute them properly, there wasn't much more we could do.

ENDS

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