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'The international community is determined to act'

PM - 'The international community is determined to act'

The Prime Minister, holding his latest press conference to journalists in Blackpool, has repeated his calls for new UN resolutions to deal with Iraq and weapons of mass destruction.

Mr Blair said: '...it is vital that a new resolution is passed making sure that this weapons inspection and monitoring regime is different, tougher and more effective than the last.'

Mr Blair said this was an issue for the whole of the international community to act on and 'if necessary by force if Saddam fails to comply with the clear demands of the international community.'

The purpose of the strategy against Iraq was the 'total disarmament of Saddam and the Iraqi regime' of chemical, biological or nuclear weapons. The Prime Minister repeated the importance of the Iraqi regime not to get mixed messages:

"...what is very important and I was saying on the radio this morning is that he doesn't get any mixed messages about this: the international community is determined to act, is determined to disarm him. It can happen peacefully but if it doesn't happen peacefully it will have to happen through military action."

Mr Blair urged the international community to back this position as it 'allows us to enforce the international community's will and it allows us to do that in a way that avoids conflict.'

The Prime Minister added:

"So anyone who wants to avoid conflict, make the position clear, because I think that the single most thing we could do in this situation is to send a message that allows him to think well maybe if I really play about a bit, or muck around as I have done in the past few years, I can avoid disarmament. He can't avoid it, it is going to happen one way or another."

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Full Transcript of the Prime Minister's Press Conference


The Prime Minister held a press conference today (2 October) where he answered questions from journalists on a range of topics including:

Iraq and weapons of mass destruction
A Levels
Hospitals; and
the countryside.
Read a transcript of the press conference below.


PRIME MINISTER:

I hope you will have seen from this week that the plans being laid out by Ministers give a very clear sense of the government's future direction and the emphasis particularly on reform going along with the record investment we are making ... that just as the additional necessary investment goes into the public services, so we have to quicken the pace of reform, make the changes, make the structural changes necessary to make that money work for the benefit of the patient and the pupil, the victim of crime.

Next month The Queen's speech will have as its centrepiece legislation to overhaul the Criminal Justice System along the lines that David and myself have been setting out this week. I know also you will want to ask me about Iraq, and let me just say a few words on that. The

Security Council will be discussing the inspection regime with Hans Blix later today. Let me just say this. The world demands total unfettered, unobstructed, access to Iraq's weapons of mass destruction programmes.

We need a strong new United Nations resolution and discussions of that are at an important stage, and we continue to work on it. But the access that we require must include the Presidential Palaces. It is no good allowing inspectors access to 99% of Iraq if the weapons of mass destruction are actually located and stored and being worked on in the remaining 1% of Iraq.

Finally, on a happier note yesterday I spoke to Prime Minister Raffarin of France, who called me to say the ban on British beef was finally to be lifted, and I thanked him for the role that he has played since taking office on bringing about change in this area, and also in dealing with the issues to do with Sangatte. I think on both issues the relations between the British and the French government have got off to a very, very good start, and as I thought after meeting Jean Pierre Raffarin a few weeks ago when we were both on holiday, I think it is going to be a very good, and fruitful, and productive relationship and I thank him very much for the intervention that he has made.

QUESTION

Can I just ask about something you said earlier today about the A Level students. You said that you apologise to those who have been affected and said they must be looked after. How do you envisage that being done? And on the numbers, I think you said that the estimates you had been given were a bit wild, some of them, what is your best estimate or do you not have one?

PRIME MINISTER:

The important thing is to let Mike Tomlinson tell us exactly what the full extent of the problem is, and he is still working on it, as you know. And since the whole allegation in a sense has been that government should stand apart from this process, it is right that he does it. All I was pointing out is that the exams are made out of certain units, in terms of the actual units affected it is round about 8%, so that rather suggests that some of the figures being banded about are exaggerated. However, we have to wait for Mike Tomlinson to give us the full details on that. And as we know the full extent of the problem, we will know exactly what we can do about it. But I suspect that from the information that Mike Tomlinson has already put out, that this is a situation that we will be able to deal with, but exactly how we are going to deal with it I am afraid we will have to wait until he comes out with his final report.

QUESTION

Prime Minister, could you give us the reaction of Bill Clinton and Kevin Spacey to their first northern night, and how are you going to top it next year?

PRIME MINISTER:

I think topping it is going to be impossible, I think we should recognise that right at the outset, because they were absolutely overwhelmed by the warmth of the reaction, and I promised them that the northern region would give them a warm welcome, and they did, and the delegates were delighted and they were delighted.

QUESTION

Could I follow up Charles Reiss's question. There seems to be almost a sense of ... complacency in the government about this A Levels disaster. Mr Tomlinson talks still of tens of thousands of students who ... Is this not a really serious problem ... and shouldn't we be hearing a little bit more in terms of apology from Ministers about it now?

PRIME MINISTER:

We are very clear, I have just said a moment or two ago, of course we are very sad for those students affected. What we are simply saying at the moment is we don't exactly know how many numbers are affected, and students may be affected in the sense that their papers, the grades or the marks are moved upwards, we don't however know how many of those that will then have an impact on in respect of the actual grades that they have got. So we simply do not know at this stage. What we do know is that 97% of the problem was with one exam board. What we do know is that the number of units that have been actually affected is less than 10%. What we don't yet know is how that translates into the specific students, their grades and then how that impacts on their university places. And there is no point in us speculating about it, because as I said a moment or two ago, the very allegation at the beginning was that the government interfered with this process. Now we haven't interfered with it. It is now however for Mike Tomlinson to tell us exactly what the full extent of the problem is. He will do that and we will deal with it as soon as we know the full facts.

QUESTION:

Is the exam system still something that students can trust in the future?

PRIME MINISTER:

Of course. Look, let's not forget about this. We have the best primary school results in this country that we have ever had, the best GCSE results that we have ever had, the best A Level results that we have ever had. And the reason why people were concerned within one of the examining boards about the marks was that it thought the marks were too high. Now we have to make sure that we deal with the problems arising out of that, we are dealing with it, but the best way of dealing with it, as people were calling for us to do, is to have an independent person see the process through, and that is what we are doing. And when you say to me tell us exactly how many people are affected, we can't tell you that until the independent person appointed to do it tells us the answer.

QUESTION

You are a man of strong Christian beliefs, yet you have already gone to war in Kosovo, you have gone to war in Afghanistan, we seem to be on the point of going to war in Iraq, doesn't this record, with your own beliefs, trouble you?

PRIME MINISTER:

It would trouble me if I thought the military action that we had taken in respect of any of those things was unjustified. I think most Christians would have thought it was justified to fight in World War II. I certainly thought that it was justified to come to those Muslims that were being ethnically cleansed over Kosovo. I thought it was right to make sure that when thousands of people were brutally killed in the worst terrorist attack in the world's history we took military action in Afghanistan. I think it is in the interests of peace and security long term in the world that Saddam Hussein is not able to acquire chemical, biological and nuclear weapons. So I think whether someone is of Christian faith, or not of a Christian faith, whether someone has got any faith or no faith, most people realise that you should only go to war as a last resort, but sometimes it is necessary to do that.

QUESTION

In your speech here this week you said that transport is probably the worst area of public services. In that case, why is the government doing nothing to prevent the appalling wave of strikes on the Tube, we have seen more misery and mayhem in London this week and now there are more strikes threatened. Why is the government doing nothing to prevent that misery?

PRIME MINISTER:

In the end the responsibility for taking strike action rests with the union calling it. This government, no government, is in a position where you can say that people don't have the right to withdraw their labour, but the strike in London is totally and absolutely unnecessary, it has no justification whatever on any objective basis and I very much hope that the union leadership will realise it has no support amongst the public at large, I suspect it has got declining support amongst their own membership, and it won't make any difference to the way either that the government conducts its policy or the underground is run. But there have been strikes on the Tube under previous Conservative governments as well as Labour governments and we have simply got to state our position very clearly and see it through.

QUESTION:

Do you agree with Rhodri Morgan when he says that ... as Prime Minister of England and that your bold reform agenda isn't for Wales?

PRIME MINISTER:

I agree with him entirely, but in the end the way that the Health Service and schools are run in Wales is for the Welsh Assembly and the Welsh Executive, that is the principle of devolution, and if people in Wales want to do it a different way they can, and in the end it will be the people that will be the judge of that. But I wouldn't take Rhodri's remarks completely out of context. He is also pioneering a very substantial investment and reform programme in Wales itself, in schools and in hospitals, they are just doing it in a different way, as they are in Scotland.

QUESTION:

Inaudible.

PRIME MINISTER:

Well it is a different system. And for example in the schooling, you know because it is obviously a far smaller country and it is organised differently, they are doing it in a different way, but the basic principles of change and investment are still being adopted.

QUESTION:

Is the current state of the Tory Party, do you think, of help or hindrance to you in furthering your political goals? As a Privy Council colleague, what is your advice for Iain Duncan Smith for his conference next week? And do you agree with Edwina Currie that her affair with John Major is of historic importance?

PRIME MINISTER:

Blimey. I think I would want advance notice of all those questions. As to the last, I have really got no comment on it at all. Privy Council discussions have never really followed that line of thought and in the end it is for the Conservative Party to sort themselves out, that is really not my job. My job is to make sure that the government has a clear sense of direction and in the end, look I have seen this all before, and people in my position in government would be very foolish to write off oppositions, and I don't. All I would say is that my concentration has got to be on sorting the government and its challenges, making sure that we are moving forward in the right direction, and what the Conservative Party do is something you can ask them next week.

QUESTION

One of your Ministers said after the Iraq debate here in Blackpool this week - Clare Short - "The conference is insisting the government must act through the United Nations, the government is accepting that position." Are you prepared to rule out any British military participation in an action which is not authorised by the United Nations? And secondly you called this morning for a tough new UN resolution, are you prepared to see two different resolutions, one toughening up the working conditions for the Inspectors and the degree of access they get, and a second one later if necessary authorising military action?

PRIME MINISTER:

I just think that at the stage we are at with negotiations over the resolution, there are certain questions frankly at this stage it is not very helpful to speculate on. But let me try and give you the basic principles that we are going to operate under. One, we believe it is right to go through the United Nations, we think this is an issue for the whole of the international community; two, it is vital that a new resolution is passed making sure that this weapons inspection and monitoring regime is different, tougher and more effective than the last; and three, I have no doubt at all that it is right for the international community as a whole to act, if necessary by force, if Saddam fails to comply with the clear demands of the international community. Now what that means about one resolution versus two and all the rest of it, these are all things that are being discussed at the moment and I am not going to get into the details of that at the moment, simply to say that I think it is important that we go the UN route, but the UN route, as I have said all the way through, has got to be the way of dealing with this issue, not the way of avoiding dealing with it.

QUESTION

Inaudible.

PRIME MINISTER:

We actually can't have everyone just shouting out their questions, but because it is Robin Oakley we will allow you to do it on this one occasion. No, we don't want that. Look, let's be absolutely clear about the purpose of this. The world has decided, rightly, that Saddam Hussein, he can have a conventional army and maybe an Air Force and however much we might want to see rid of him, he has got the ability to have that. What the international community has said, however, is that he is not to have chemical, biological or nuclear weapons, and the purpose of what we are doing is the total disarmament of Saddam and the Iraqi regime of those weapons. Now if it can be done by a tough new weapons inspection regime, we will do it that way; but if it can't be done that way, we have to do it the other way, by force if necessary.

Now it is as simple as that. And what is very important, as I was saying on the radio earlier this morning, is that he doesn't get any mixed messages about this. The international community is determined to act, is determined to disarm him, it can happen peacefully but if it doesn't happen peacefully it will have to happen through military action. Now I think that is I would have thought as clear as we can possibly be, and what I urge all my colleagues in the international community to do is to get behind that position because it is the right position, it allows us to enforce the international community's will and it allows us to do that in a way that avoids conflict. So anyone who wants to avoid conflict, make the position clear, because I think that the single most important thing we could do in this situation is to send a message that allows him to think well maybe if I really play about a bit, or muck around as I have done in the past few years, I can avoid disarmament. He can't avoid it, it is going to happen one way or another.

QUESTION

Firstly for the west country, farmers tell us that they are being forced out of the industry and they say that a ban on hunting would affect many more. 400,000 marched through the streets of London and yet this week you have said virtually nothing to them.

PRIME MINISTER:

Well I did in fact, I said as part of my speech that we would carry on meeting the genuine and serious concerns there are within the farming community by continuing to put more subsidy into the farming industry than goes into the rest of British industry put together, and we will carry on doing that. But it is also important that we are honest about the reasons why farming is in crisis - BSE, foot and mouth disease, problems that started within the farming industry have underlined once again the need for reform and change. And what we are doing, and we have been working on this, you know sometimes when you listen to people speak it is almost as if we never sat down with the farming community and tried to work this through, we have been working on this for several years, we after the foot and mouth disease appointed Sir Donald Currie to head up a commission, he came out with a series of recommendations to improve the situation in the farming industry. We have listened to those, we have acted on them, the Treasury has given several hundred million pounds in addition to what we were already putting in, in order to see that process through. But there are real issues, issues to do with the collapse in world commodity prices, issues to do with agriculture that are affecting virtually every agricultural industry right round the world. So we are listening and we want to work with the farming industry to do it, but some of these problems are tough.

QUESTION

Just picking you up on the bit of Robin's question I don't think you did answer, you are not prepared to specifically rule out going into action outside the UN. And if that was Robin's question, can I ask my own question, which is the foundation hospitals. Do you think they should be free to borrow on the open market outside the borrowing requirement?

PRIME MINISTER:

On the first thing, what I am certainly saying is that we are at an important stage in negotiating the resolution and it is just not a helpful thing to speculate on what happens if we don't get what we want and all the rest of it. Let's just leave it where it is at the moment because I am optimistic that we will get a strong and good resolution.

Secondly, in relation to foundation hospitals, what we have got to do is make sure that whatever powers they have, not just in relation to borrowing but in relation to the service they provide, are both consistent with the Treasury's totally legitimate anxiety that we must make sure that we don't do anything irresponsible with the public finances; and secondly, we have the need to make sure that they are providing a better service within the National Health Service. Now these are issues that are going through the normal process of government, we are trying to iron them out, as I said on the radio this morning, they are not really issues of ideology at all, they are issues of practicality and the end product is what is important, a really good service for the consumer.

QUESTION:

Inaudible.

PRIME MINISTER:

It is not that it is ... but it is unresolved in this sense, that all the details of this are yet to be worked out, but we are working them out.

QUESTION

Yesterday Bill Clinton urged people in Northern Ireland to keep their eyes on the prize. Does it disappoint you that 5 years on from the Good Friday agreement first of all that he needs to do that, and that there is a perception in the nationalist community that everything you do is directed to shoring up ... position within his own party?

PRIME MINISTER:

I don't think it is very surprising that President Clinton, indeed myself, urge people to keep their eyes on the prize. This was never going to be an event, peace in Northern Ireland, it was always going to be a process, it was always going to be difficult. And it is a classic example of people being upset, understandably, legitimately, by certain things happening and needing every so often to take a step back from the immediate and say well are we actually improving the long term situation?

And I think what is interesting is that anybody who from the outside visits Northern Ireland after say several years of not going there, can see very clearly the difference, the fact that in the vast bulk of the country there are no troop movements any more, the fact that we have a situation where for the first time you have all the different parties sitting down in government together in an Assembly in Northern Ireland, with an Executive in Northern Ireland, with the principle of consent accepted, with the Union guaranteed whilst a majority of people in Northern Ireland want it to remain. I think that most people can see that those are big advances. And in a sense it is true, because the worry is within the Unionist community particularly, yes of course we are trying to address those concerns, but we are not addressing them in I think a sort of lopsided way, we are trying to address them in an even-handed way.

QUESTION

After the Chancellor spoke to the conference on Tuesday, Treasury officials indicated that he might have to revise down his great estimates for this year and next year. Has he told you this and are you concerned that this could affect your very ambitious spending programmes over the rest of this parliament?

PRIME MINISTER:

No, we are absolutely secure in the spending programmes that we have got, for the reasons Gordon has given on many occasions. As for the growth forecast, he will present them again in the pre-Budget Report in November, next month, and you will have to wait for those then.

QUESTION

I just wanted to ask how you found the facilities in Blackpool this week and if you would be bringing the conference back at the earliest opportunity?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well I am sure we will be back in Blackpool, we have had an excellent week here, the facilities have been excellent and you have provided us with some Riviera weather as well, so we are very pleased indeed.

QUESTION:

Yesterday we saw the Headmaster of Winchester, who was one of the people responsible for bringing in the new A Levels, say that everyone has known for years that you were heading for disaster and at the end of the day it was down to Ministers who brought this in. Now the buck does stop with Ministers and wouldn't they be better at this stage to admit that and start saying sorry, rather than trying to say that it is completely down to the examination board, it is down to the way that this was implemented?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well we have said very clearly that we feel extremely sorry for those students that have been affected by this and that is why we are committed to sorting it out. But I think you should also be aware of the fact that the vast majority of people within the education system actually support the new exams, the way it is happening and the way it has been done. And what we have got to make sure is that we learn any of the lessons from the first year of its implementation. And we should also not forget the fact that exam results in the country are getting better, not worse. And as I said a few days ago, I think that part of the problem sometimes is, and this has happened mainly, as you know, within one examining board, 97% of it has been within one examining board, I think part of it has been that people have felt well how on earth could these results be so good. But sometimes it may be better to give praise to the teachers and students who are doing it.

QUESTION:

You say crime levels are falling and yet in the Midlands gun crime is on the increase, in fact in Nottingham a 16 year old boy was shot dead in a drive-by shooting. His parents certainly don't believe that crime is falling.

PRIME MINISTER:

It is a fact that overall crime is down. If you are a victim of crime, that is no consolation to you, so I totally understand, whether in Nottingham or anywhere else, if people are suffering or being killed as a result of crime, they don't want to hear about the statistics. Now the question is what are we going to do about it, and the key is to make sure that we push through what is going to be the most radical change in the criminal justice system for 100 years. Now we are doing that, we are working with the police to do it, we are working with courts to do it, the Crown Prosecution Service, and that will allow us to be far more effective particularly in targeting organised crime, which is where a lot of the gun crime comes from.

QUESTION

President Clinton yesterday said there was unfinished business in Afghanistan, which I am sure you would agree with. One of those pieces of unfinished business is the state of the prisoners in Guantanamo Bay. Overnight there have been reports that there have been yet more suicide attempts there. When you and other western leaders are preaching that the fight against Iraq is about justice, doesn't common humanity and justice demand that those prisoners are now either charged or released?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well it is a difficult situation, isn't it, because we are still getting information not just from those prisoners, but also information that allows us to question them. And certainly so far as I am aware they are being treated with every consideration for them as human beings in the way they should be treated. But I think it is worth emphasising to people that the threat from this terrorist group, from the al Qu'eda network, is not over, it really is not over, and we are getting information the whole time, as I say partly from within those people who are imprisoned there, partly from other sources, which it is important for us to investigate. And I know it is a difficult situation, it is difficult to carry on with them in that position, but on the other hand I think people wouldn't understand it if we still had genuine and real questions to ask them, which we do, and we passed up the chance of doing so.

QUESTION

What is your reaction to the ... Andrew Hunter leaving the Conservative Party?

PRIME MINISTER:

It is up to him what he does, but I think that his opposition to the Northern Ireland peace process is entirely muddle headed and wrong and I am sure that the vast majority of people in Basingstoke, as elsewhere in the United Kingdom, want to see this peace process succeed and not be brought down. And for all the difficulties, it still remains the best hope for Northern Ireland. And some of us remember, in fact all of us should remember, what it was like when we had mainland bombing campaigns, when every day you used to wake up to new threats and difficulties from a mainland IRA bombing campaign. Now that is a thingof the past, we have still got to sort out the remaining terrorist activity in Northern Ireland and we are trying to do so, but I just think his position, what he does with his own political career is up to him, but I think his position in respect of Northern Ireland is absolutely wrong, and if we go down the Iain Paisley path in Northern Ireland then the result of that will be that we break up everything that has been gained over the past few years.

QUESTION

I think people listening to the radio this morning may have been intrigued to hear that it is only recently that it has become clear to you the direction your government was now taking. Was there a moment of inspiration when it suddenly dawned upon you?

PRIME MINISTER:

I think that is a slightly pejorative way of putting what I was saying. All I was really saying is that we have been working on the reform programme and the investment programme, but I think there is now a very clear sense of what the right balance is between the centre and localdevolution and control. When we first came in, for example there were about 500, or even maybe 600, failing schools. You have to intervene strongly from the centre in those circumstances, otherwise they carry on failing. There is now half that number, so we made a big impact as a result of that. We have made a big impact on, for example everynational index for waiting in the Health Service, in-patient and out-patient, every one is now better than 1997.

So direction in that sense has always been there. I think what we are in a better position to do now, now that we have got proper systems of inspection and accountability and national standards in the Health Service and in education, what we are able to do now is with those parts of those services that are really doing well, we are able to free them up more, let them diversify and innovate and create. And I think that that is where the change is, and I also think, because of the experience of thelast few years, that even though we have had a lot of Criminal Justice Bills in our first term of government, I think it is now that we have really as it were almost stripped down the system in its entirety and said look which are the points that we need to take really radical change here, and that is what the new Criminal Justice legislation will do. So it is not that we have just discovered the direction of the government, the direction of the government has always been very clear - sound economic foundation; tackling poverty; investment and reform of public services - but I think what is sharper today is the sense of where that reform is taking us, both in schools, and in hospitals, and in criminal justice.

QUESTION

Given the three names in the frame, can Labour choose a candidate for Mayor of London capable of beating Ken Livingstone?

PRIME MINISTER:

In the end this will come down to politics, it will come down to who has got the best law and order policies, transport policies, business policies for London, and I believe that any of the three candidates that we have chosen will have the right policies for London and that is what it will all be about. So I don't think it is a question of Ken Livingstone as a personality, I think that was the question before he became Mayor, I think the issue now will be what has been his record as Mayor and can we do a better job than that, and I believe that those three candidates can.

QUESTION:

On A levels, in your speech you said that the problem was that people couldn't accept that standards were rising, and the reason why people are asking you again and again about this is because you are always pointing the finger at somebody else, and when you have been asked to say sorry twice here, you have said you feel sorry for the students, which is not the same as saying we are sorry we helped create the mess which the independent review described as an accident waiting to happen directly because of Ministerial decisions to do with creating AS Levels which inflated grades.

PRIME MINISTER:

But I have been very clear. Of course I am sorry, I am not just sorry for those students that have been put in this position, I am sorry that this situation has ever arisen. What I am simply pointing out to you though is that first of all the likely numbers are far smaller than is being talked about, and secondly it shouldn't obscure the fact that actually not just for A Levels, but for GCSEs and for primary school results, we are doing better than we have ever done before as a country. Now within one exam board effectively, because 97% was within one exam board, Mike Tomlinson, who has got charge of this independently, is saying look this situation is one I can't determine exactly what the full extent of is at the moment, but he will tell us that and we will deal with it.

But I do think it is important that we realise it was within the one exam board, it is probably, as I say, a far smaller number of people than has been talked about, we will sort the situation out for those people, but in the end let's celebrate the fact in future when we do well, rather than feel that because we have done so well somehow the marking has to be brought down, because that in a sense is exactly everything I have been talking about this week. We actually are doing better in our education system today. Now obviously when you are changing the system and introducing a new system, which has got basic support, Mike Tomlinson I think said in the first page of his report, in essence the new system has widespread support right across the education system. When you introduce a new system problems happen.

And of course as ever the responsibility always in the end rests with the government, though I do also point out to you that the original application, the original allegation was that the government had interfered with this when it shouldn't have interfered with it. So we have had to be careful obviously because these exam boards, and the QCA are independent bodies and we can't interfere with the way that they mark things.

QUESTION

You talked about central intervention in failing services and the government is currently consulting about putting in intervention boards and binding referendum on elected mayors for councils which come up poorly in their comprehensive performance assessment. How committed are you to extending the elected mayors concept and how much of a difference do you think that will make compared with councils running with elected cabinets and leaders?

PRIME MINISTER:

There are choices for people in the end. I happen to think that to have a civic leader and to have an election around who is to be that civic leaders is helpful for local politics, but there are different views on that in the Labour Party, never mind anywhere else. And what I do think is important is what we are saying to local government is again you will get more freedom depending on performance. If you are doing well then you will earn greater freedom, greater ability to be innovative and creative about the services that you provide. But where you are failing local people we, as central government, can't let you do so, and it is the same principle there in local government as we are outlining and articulating in respect of schools and hospitals.

QUESTION

What you mentioned in your Iraq statement on Tuesday about the Middle East were actually very positive concerning the need for all the parties to comply with the United Nations resolutions and the need to create two states, Palestinian and Israeli. But some people in the Middle East actually say that the British statements concerning the Middle East specifically got very positive whenever there is a need for that, and the need is to attack Iraq. How determined is the British policy now to intervene in the Middle East?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well I understand that and part of the reason for that is that obviously if there was a problem elsewhere in the Middle East, when we get asked even more acutely about our position in respect of the Middle East peace process, but actually we have been dedicated to finding a way through that for many years. And we shouldn't be doing the Middle East peace process because of issues concerned with Iraq, we should be doing it because it is right anyway. However, it is important to emphasise our commitment to doing it to assuage the fear, or claims that there are, that we operate with double standards here. And as I say, what we have got to do is find a way through the Middle East peace process to bring peace to the Israelis and the Palestinians based on the two state solution, and we have got to deal with the issues of weapons of mass destruction.

But even if Iraq were not an issue at all, even if Afghanistan had never been an issue at all, I would still have been working as hard as I could to bring about a peaceful situation there, because it is absolutely tragic and appalling at the moment, the suffering of people is very, very great indeed, and the only way of getting through it is to restart the peace process.

QUESTION

If hospitals are able to raise finance on the money markets because they are high performing, isn't that inevitably going to lead to a two tier Health Service?

PRIME MINISTER:

No. Even now you have hospitals performing in different ways and using the existing powers in different ways too, the same as you do with schools today. So there is already a degree of freedom within the system, but we are looking at how we enhance that. The two tier Health System came about when people would get access to healthcare depending either on their financial situation or on particular hospitals working in a particular way. That is not what we are about. What we are about is making sure that those hospitals that are succeeding and doing well are given greater freedom and for the rest they are given the support in order to provide the better service.

And we have got to be very clear about this, that the only way we are going to make radical change within the National Health Service is to have, yes, national standards and a proper system of accountability, changes in the terms and conditions of people who are employed in the Health Service, which is why we are changing the doctors' contracts, the consultants' contracts, the terms under which nurses work, we have got to have elements of consumer choice come into it, which is why for example for heart patients now if they are not treated within six months they can choose to go elsewhere, next year that is going to be applied across the whole of London, and then fourthly, the fourth basis of it, is that where there are high performing trusts then they get greater freedom, we devolve to the frontline.

QUESTION

How misguided do you think the fire-fighters' 40% pay claim is, and are you convinced that there are sufficient contingency plans in place if there is a strike?

PRIME MINISTER:

Of course we have got to make contingency plans, and we are doing that. The fire-fighters do an extremely good job. We understand their concerns, we have offered an independent review under George Bains, who is highly respected across the trade union movement, in order to look at their concerns. What we cannot do as a government is accede to a 40% or 50% wage claim, because if we did that we would have rampant wage inflation within the public sector and the end result would be that people's mortgages went up and the economy went downhill. Now we can't do that, there is not a single government, no matter of what political complexion, that could when inflation is as low as it is - 2% - end up saying we are going to have a 40% wage claim in one part of the public sector, it is just not realistic. And we understand the problems that fire-fighters feel they have, that is why we offered an independent review and that is an independent review the TUC itself is co-operating with and I urge the leadership of the fire-fighters to consider that co-operating with this review is a far better way than taking strike action that really cannot on any basis be yielded to by the government.

QUESTION:

Do you support your Labour colleagues who think that charitable status should be withdrawn from private schools?

PRIME MINISTER:

No.

QUESTION

On Tuesday you talked about Europe and the euro being part of Britain's destiny. Can I just ask that if on the day you stop being Prime Minister, the pound sterling is still in existence, will you feel you have failed in your mission to put Britain at the heart of Europe?

PRIME MINISTER:

I don't think you were up for the Today Programme this morning, or listening to it, but I had that exact question from Jim Naughtie, and what I said was, which I will repeat, is it will also be a mistake to go into the euro if the economic tests aren't met. But obviously of course

I believe passionately that it is important for Britain to be at the centre of Europe, and I believe it because there are big decisions coming up in Europe at the moment. It is really important for there to be an understanding of this that on economic policy, on economic reform, on the future of Europe and the institutions that will govern Europe and take the decisions in Europe, on security and defence policy and foreign policy in Europe, there are major decisions coming up, on the Common Agricultural Policy, on the enlargement of Europe, Britain has got to have the influence in Europe to make those decisions and shape those decisions in the right way for Britain, and that is why it is important for Britain to be at the centre of Europe, and that is why yes of course it is my ambition for the country to do that, but we can only go into the single currency if the economic tests are passed because in the end it is an economic union and it has got to be good for the British economy.

QUESTION

In a few short months it is highly likely that you will have to send British forces into action in Iraq and this time around the chances of Saddam Hussein using chemical or biological weapons against our troops are far higher perhaps than they were in the Gulf War. I am interested to know how you feel personally? You have talked in the past about sleepless nights during military action, how do you feel about the prospect of having to ask British forces to go back into that kind of atmosphere?

PRIME MINISTER:

I feel a huge sense of responsibility for that, which is why we should not put British troops in that position unless it is absolutely necessary. And the fact that Saddam may feel that he should use these weapons can't be a reason for not disarming him of them. But on the other hand of course it is important that we make sure that we take every precaution there, and there are certain military issues that I won't go into that we would need to look at very carefully, but yes it is a tremendous responsibility to put British troops into action, which is why I hope this can be resolved without it. But I do think, and I learnt this particularly over the situation in Kosovo actually, that when you are dealing, not with another democracy, but when you are dealing with a dictatorship, they don't really understand diplomacy unless they think force is backing it up. Kofi Annan was making this point the other day, diplomacy not backed by force when dealing with a dictator is not merely useless, it is often counter-productive. They have to know that force will be used and that we are prepared to do that, but obviously of course we hope that that is not the case.

QUESTION:

What will a Criminal Justice System, less weighted in favour of the defendant and less of a messy compromise between liberals and authoritarians actually look like, and won't it inevitably look more authoritarian and more weighted against the defendants?

PRIME MINISTER:

No, for the reasons that David was giving yesterday. It is not a zero sum game. Let me give you a classic example, and that is where the rules of evidence have very heavy restrictions on when previous convictions of a defendant can be mentioned in court and where for example the defence has unique abilities to conceal certain expert evidence from the prosecution, even though the prosecution is obliged to disclose that evidence to the defence. Now I think that those rules should be sorted out to bring common sense into the system.

And we have got to understand, the Criminal Justice System, the fascinating thing about the streetcrime initiative was what it uncovered about the system. Let me just give you one example without holding people up too much, but when we first came to look at this situation, a lot of the problems are caused by children playing truant from school, and they don't turn up for school, they are out on the street, they are committing criminal offences. And those children, if they are playing truant regularly, are often then excluded from school. What happens when they are excluded from school, they get very little education when they are excluded, so it is a crazy situation where their punishment for not turning up and behaving properly at school is that they don't go to school.

So what we are saying now is, and these are the proposals that we have introduced, is that if you are permanently excluded from school you go into a different type of schooling, you don't just go out on the street or do whatever you want to do, and we have now got to then look further at doing this, even for temporarily excluded pupils. So all I am saying is that throughout the system there is a lack of rigour and that is what then demoralises the police and then the police feel well what is the point because you go through the court system and it is all weighted down with bureaucracy and difficulty and by the time anything actually happens the whole thing is forgotten about anyway. That is why this thing is so important I think.

QUESTION

In your conference speech a year ago you announced a review of university student funding. We were given to understand that everything was on the table, including the widespread re-introduction of student grants. A year has gone by and not a word about it at this conference from yourself or from the Education Secretary. Are you bold enough to bring back the student grant?

PRIME MINISTER:

I don't think it is a question of being bold, I think everyone recognises that there is going to have to be a balance of contributions between student and state. Within the next few months the proposals will be published on that and the aim is to make sure again that we free up the university system as much as possible at the same time as making sure we are giving better access for poorer students. But we will never go back to the old system because it simply can't be afforded.

QUESTION:

You have mentioned crime, both in the speech and today. Monday was the deadline for the finish of the six month streetcrime initiative. Can you tell us now definitively whether you met the target of bringing it, as you said, under control, and are you able to say that - as I suspect you are - when at least two of the ten metropolitan authorities, South and West Yorkshire, were until very recently on course not to meet the target?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well we have to get the final figures from the various police forces, but I have no doubt at all that we will meet it. And the facts are very simple even at the moment. What we know is that it was going up 30%, really exploding, 30% up to March, and since then has fallen 15%. Now on any basis that is a trend going downwards, not upwards. In respect of each individual force we will just have to wait until we get the figures, but do remember that the vast bulk of this in any event was within 2 police forces and both of those have definitively met the target.

QUESTION

On Monday when conference voted against ... on PFI you faced a situation where the constituency labour parties voted in favour of PFI but the unions voted you down. Do you think it is time that the union block vote and their power to do that is ended?

PRIME MINISTER:

No, we don't have any plans to change the basis of voting, but I think it is interesting nonetheless that the constituency parties did vote in that way. I think the single most interesting thing about the way the week has gone in a sense is that people listen to an argument, and what was interesting about David, or Alan, or Estelle, I list those three speeches because I heard those on the public side, is that they were making an argument, they didn't just go in and say the usual things and all the rest of it, they made an argument, David as to why the Criminal Justice System should change, Estelle and Alan's as to why there should be fundamental reform in their public services, and the constituency delegates respond to that.

And I think that there is a real change, the Labour Party has matured and changed and I think that is positive for the government because it means that the stresses and strains that previous Labour governments were subject to aren't felt in the same way any more, and I think that really the exciting thing for me is that the pressure that comes up on the government from the Parliamentary Labour parties today, and I think this is distinctively different from Labour governments in the '70s or the '60s, the pressure is what I would call real people's pressure. Their concerns about Iraq are people's concerns about Iraq, they are not a small group of activists, the general population are asking the same questions. Their concerns about crime are ordinary concerns about crime, their impatience and frustration at the pace of change, say, in the NHS or schools is reflected in what their constituents think. So that is what I think is important and I think there is a far more, as I say, mature way that we are conducting things and I think that is good for the government.

QUESTION

You are due to be meeting the Taoiseach next week I think for talks on the Northern Ireland process. Given the fact that elections in Northern Ireland always have a polarising effect on the politicians, do you think that there is really any chance of progress until we get the next Assembly elections over and done with? And could I also ask your reaction to a statement from the police this week in which they blame the Provisional IRA, not dissidents, for an incident in Londonderry at the weekend where a man driving a bus full of pensioners was dragged off his vehicle by masked men and shot in both legs?

PRIME MINISTER:

I had understood on that latter point that the police were still looking to come up with a definitive statement there, so I won't say anything more about that at this stage. Although any activity of that nature is totally unacceptable. We have made it very, very clear that the judgments that are being applied are stronger and tougher as time goes on. Now on the first point, well I just hope that people realise in the end, the question is do you want the agreement for the peace process to go on, or do you want to roll the whole thing backwards. You see I think sometimes people think in Northern Ireland that you could have this peace process without any of the stresses and the strains and the difficulties.

You can't, it is part of what comes with it. But the alternative is not that you have a peaceful, calm status quo, the alternative is that the thing rolls backwards, and that is what would happen again. And I just keep saying to people, I say this particularly obviously, as I was saying to one of your colleagues of the unionist community, when the Unionist community says to me what have they got out of this, I say well the first thing you have got out of it is the Union, guaranteed north and south now to remain, unless and until a majority of people in Northern Ireland want that position to change. Now that is what Unionism has been fighting for for 80 years. Now of course there is a tremendous amount of difficulty, particularly when you are taking people who were engaged in violence and paramilitary activity, taking them from a position where that was their way of life, to where they are actually going to be saying that is unacceptable and people who do that should be put in prison. Now that is the change, and it is a massive change.

Now I happen to believe, and I have said this before and I say it again, I honestly believe that Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness are sincere about wanting this process to work, and I do believe that, and they have got their process of change that Republicanism is undergoing.

And when you look at it, I think most people when they really take a step back and say would we prefer to be in Northern Ireland 2002 or Northern Ireland 1992, and I think most people would say look I think this is rather better. And the best test of it incidentally, it is what is happening on jobs, and industry and investment where the money is coming in and the jobs are there, and Northern Ireland unemployment has fallen proportionately more than any other region of the UK, and that is because of the peace process. So I agree if you are on the short strand, or you are living in north Belfast and there is absolute hell in your life or you are subjected to the difficulties of the school children and so on, of course those people are sitting there and saying well what is all this peace process, I'm not at peace.

But for the vast majority of people it is a changed situation. I was talking to some people from Northern Ireland the other day who I think came from Newry, I think they were, and they were just saying to me I can't understand how anyone can say Northern Ireland is not better today than it was, and we have just got to make what is happening in the majority of Northern Ireland the rule in Northern Ireland and that is going to still take time but it is worth fighting for.

QUESTION:

... President Clinton pointed out a couple of flaws in the United Nations, they wouldn't support you over Kosovo because the Russians were siding with their traditional allies, the Serbs in the first instance. Is he right to point out that we are dealing with an imperfect institution in the UN?

PRIME MINISTER:

What he was doing, I thought incidentally that his way of describing it was absolutely excellent, he said that the United Nations was still in a state of becoming, it is not actually complete, and I think that is right. What he is saying is that what happened in Kosovo was that for various reasons to do with politics really beyond the particular issue, there wasn't a specific UN Security Council resolution on Kosovo, but nonetheless once the situation, the military action was over, actually all of the world community got behind the reconstruction of Kosovo and to that extent he is simply saying look there are difficulties in the way the institutions work, but it was still obviously a very powerful commitment to the principle of doing things through the UN.

QUESTION

We have learned that tomorrow in Spennymore, right next door to your constituency, up to 1400 jobs are going to be announced by Black and Decker that they are going to be lost and they move their operations to eastern Europe. What sort of future is there for manufacturing in the north east, and what are you going to do to stop the sort of short-termism of firms that come from abroad, they get all the investment and the grants and then they clear off when the economic circumstances change.

PRIME MINISTER:

As you know, Black and Decker have been there a long time. I am not going to comment on the particular decision other than to say that of course it would be tragic for the workforce. The world in which we live is one in which it is simply not honest to pretend to people that these changes don't happen. We went through it with Fujitsu in the north-east, we went through it with Siemens. It is worth also pointing out however that new manufacturing is also coming into the north east and in the case both of Siemens and Fujitsu we managed to get jobs back. So what I can say is that for any of those people affected at Black and Decker we will, as we did with Fujitsu, as we did with Siemens, we will work very, very closely with them to make sure they can get other employment and to make sure that they are properly looked after. But this is the nature, it is one of the reasons why it is so important that we play a key part in the Europe of the future, this is the nature I am afraid of the international economy, and it happens not just in Britain but in any other country in Europe, in America, in Japan, in any part of the world.

QUESTION

You said on the Today Programme, and you have repeated again today, that the issue of the borrowing rights of foundation hospitals is a practical detail that needs to be worked out. Is it not the case that it is more than just a practical detail, isn't it the case that the ability of the best performing NHS hospitals to borrow will be of fundamental importance to the degree to which they are able to offer services to the frontline, won't it be important in characterising the reforms of the NHS which you set out in your speech on Tuesday. The motif of your speech was At Our Best When at Our Boldest. At the end of this week you seem to be giving the impression that in the conversation between Alan Milburn and Gordon Brown over this issue, you are in fact not much more than an honest broker?

PRIME MINISTER:

No. You dismiss it as a practical detail and I said it was a detail, and it is a detail, but it is still very important. But it is not a question of money, it is not an issue of boldness or not boldness. The Treasury is perfectly right in saying that you have got to make sure that it is done in such a way that it is consistent with the public finances, that is not an act of conservatism, that is a perfectly sensible position. And we have got to make sure that whatever powers they have, whether borrowing powers or any other powers, it is done consistent with the proper management of the public finances. Now that is I think what you would expect really.

QUESTION

Do you think it would be easier to resolve the issue of Iraq in an international context if Bill Clinton was still President?

PRIME MINISTER:

No, I think this is an issue, whoever is the President of the United States of America, this is an important issue. And I don't think we should be the slightest bit surprised if the United States of America, after 11 September and what has happened to their country, take all of these issues and look at them in a different perspective than before 11 September. And I repeat what I have said on many, many occasions to people, you know I was Bill Clinton's partner when he was in the White House, he is a friend of mine, he is and remains a friend of mine and he gave a magnificent address to the Party Conference yesterday.

But I also have a strong relationship with George Bush as the US President, I have found him extremely open, straightforward, transparent to deal with over this issue as over there issues. And whoever is US President would have to deal with this issue and I believe that the position that the American administration has taken, which is to say right let's go through the UN but this is a challenge for the international community to deal with this issue, Saddam Hussein has got to be disarmed of these weapons, I think that position is the right position, and I think as you heard from Bill Clinton yesterday, it would have been his position too.

QUESTION

You mentioned in your speech that you wanted final status negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians to be going ahead by the end of the year. Given the importance of the United States in that, do you believe that they are doing enough to ensure that that is likely to happen. And just following up on Martha's point, if you have spoken to Mr Bush in the last couple of days, did he believe that Mr Clinton put on a good performance here?

PRIME MINISTER:

I can't say that our conversations have covered that particular topic, but in relation to the first point, I think what President Bush has done is set out the right way through this, which is security reform, political reform within the Palestinians and then the two state solution, a viable Palestinian state, a secure Israeli state. What I know is happening is that the Americans are making efforts to get that process back on track so that the negotiations can start. I just think it is vitally important that once we have got the basic principles set out, and President Bush has done that so clearly, the vital point now is to make sure that we put the energy, and the commitment and the drive into that to make it happen, because the parties themselves will find it difficult to get back into some formal negotiation and so we need that help from the outside in order to get it done.

In the end it is only the Israelis and the Palestinians that can deal with this, but to get the process going again I think that energy and commitment is very important and I am sure it will be there from the Administration. This is an issue of absolutely vital importance. In its own right, as I was saying to your colleague earlier, in its own right it is important, but it is also important to demonstrate very, very clearly to the whole of the world, particularly to the Arab and Muslim world, that we are not one-sided, we are even-handed in our approach, we want to see a just and secure and peaceful world everywhere, and that means we are prepared to bring peace to the Middle East, just as we are prepared to deal with the threat of weapons of mass destructions.

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