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Tony Blair Press Conference - Butler & Queen

Prime Minister's Press Conference

In his latest Press Conference the Prime Minister, Tony Blair, said the focus of next week's Queen's Speech will be on 'crime, anti-social behaviour and the reform of the criminal justice system'.

Commenting on the problem of anti-social behaviour, Mr Blair said:

"I think this is something that is very much affected by what MPs get back from their own constituencies...low level aggression, vandalism, fights in town centres on Friday and Saturday nights, anti-social neighbours, fly tipping, abandoned cars, graffiti, truancy."

"These crimes don't hit the headlines every day, but they do hit the daily quality of life of many in our communities, often the elderly and the most vulnerable."

The Prime Minister said he was 'determined to give the police, and above all local communities, the power to deal with the problems they and we face'.

Read a transcript of the Press Conference below:


****************

PRIME MINISTER:

Good Morning everyone. Welcome to the fifth of these news conferences. I will take your questions shortly but I will make a few brief opening remarks as we near the end of one parliamentary session and the beginning of the other with The Queen's Speech next week.

I have always been clear about the big picture vision for Britain - a strong economy with work and opportunity for everyone; more investment in our public services, allied to reform; a strong society based on rights and responsibilities; and a new role for Britain in the world. Every day in the many decisions the government has to make we work towards those goals. Next week you will see proposals covering a very wide range of issues, but the focus will be very much on crime, anti-social behaviour and the reform of the criminal justice system. As you know, there will be a number of Bills to address issues of the workings of the courts, sentencing, sexual offences, all designed to modernise the system and rebalance it in favour of the victim of crime. In addition we will be bringing forward a package of anti-social behaviour measures to address some of the real issues people care about which I sought to highlight on my visit to Newham last week.

Some of you I think were asking why last week John Prescott and myself were bothering with so-called small issues when we have to deal with Iraq, the future of Europe, public sector pay and the like. I think this is something that is very much affected by what MPs get back from their own constituencies, and I know from my constituency, I know it is the same for every MP in every part of the country, that these issues to do with anti-social behaviour are as important to the people that elected us as any other, low level aggression, vandalism, fights in town centres on Friday and Saturday nights, anti-social neighbours, fly tipping, abandoned cars, graffiti, truancy. These crimes don't hit the headlines every day, but they do hit the daily quality of life of many in our communities, often the elderly and the most vulnerable.

Some of the measures we brought in to deal with anti-social behaviour have been successful, others less so. But we are determined to give the police, and above all local communities, the power to deal with the problems they and we face. Incidentally I am encouraged by the fixed penalty notice pilot schemes, which as you probably know have been running in different parts of the country. I asked the West Midlands Chief Constable, Paul Scott-Lee, whose force is one of the four piloting the scheme at the moment, along with Essex, Croydon and North Wales, for a written analysis of the pilot so far, which he sent to me recently. It was encouraging, and we can give those of you who are interested more detail on it. He said the feedback from officers was good, it is helping free up time, reduce court delays, deal quickly with offenders, and police officers are coming forward with ideas of their own about other offences for which the fixed penalty notices could be used.

As I said in Blackpool a few weeks ago, having delivered economic stability, having got people back to work, having begun properly to invest in our public services, having got the basics right and begun the reforms, now the reform process has to be accelerated. So we are rebalancing the criminal justice system on the side of the victim, moving from a big state National Health Service to a more personalised NHS, moving beyond the old style comprehensive era for our secondary schools, recasting the 1945 welfare settlement round the needs of the individual, and making sure that the rights that people enjoy are matched by the responsibilities they give in return.

QUESTION:

Could I ask who you think is responsible for the collapse of the Burrell case, and what conclusions you draw from this?

PRIME MINISTER:

I am sure the Crown Prosecution Service will look carefully at the lessons that can be drawn from it. But I think this was a highly exceptional case, a unique case you might say, and I don't think it is right for me to speculate on the reasons why the case collapsed, I think you can see those for yourself. As I say, it is important that the Crown Prosecution Service learn any lessons from it. Perhaps I will answer some more questions about this in a moment, but I think it is important that we don't rush to judgment on some of the other constitutional issues involved.

QUESTION:

Prime Minister, are you ... any changes at all in the relationship between The Queen and the courts, and in particular this question of whether all prosecutions should be brought in the name of The Queen, and do you agree that this has made this particular case extremely difficult?

PRIME MINISTER:

Look, I think the important thing here is first of all to realise that this was a highly exceptional, as I say virtually unique case. Secondly, The Queen acted in my view entirely properly throughout. I don't think it is right that we change the rules in relation to The Queen giving evidence in court. I think of course the Crown Prosecution Service will want to consider carefully the lessons of what happened, but I do not believe there is a case for changing the law so that The Queen ends up effectively being directly involved personally in these cases. I think it would be a mistake and I think it would be unfair to her.

And I also believe, as I said a moment or two ago, that The Queen has acted properly throughout this. As soon as she realised the situation she passed on the information and the information was passed on to the Crown Prosecution Service. That was exactly as it should have been.

QUESTION:

Did you or your office have any contact with The Queen or with Buckingham Palace during this trial?

PRIME MINISTER:

As you know I have a weekly Audience with The Queen and I was informed at that audience last week of the information they had been passed on to the prosecuting authorities, and obviously we have nothing to do with the prosecution of cases, and that is as it should be, constitutionally a matter up to the Crown Prosecution Service.

QUESTION:

Inaudible.

PRIME MINISTER:

The fact, as I say, that by the time I was informed, the information had already passed on to the Crown Prosecution Service. And the question of whether to proceed or not with the case, it is not a matter for me and neither should it be a matter for me.

QUESTION:

Did any of your Ministers have any involvement in any question of PII certifications in this case. Who is going to pay the £1.5 million the taxpayer has been charged for the wastage of time in this case? And will there be anything more than an inquiry by the CPS?

PRIME MINISTER:

As I said to you a moment or two ago, I don't believe that this raises issues that require some sort of independent inquiry or public inquiry, I really don't. I think this was a highly exceptional, almost unique case. We never got to the issue of Public Interest Certificates, that is not the reason why the case collapsed. There are reasons why it is sensible when a high profile case such as this collapses, obviously this costs a lot of money, the Crown Prosecution Service of course will consider carefully the lessons from it. But I do make this point, because I think this is very important.

First of all, it is not right for Buckingham Palace to interfere with the conduct of the case, and therefore I hope people understand that it was important for them to act entirely properly throughout, which they did; and it is not right either for us as politicians to take the decisions in relation to prosecutions, that is left properly to the prosecuting authorities. Now of course there are bound to be questions asked when you get a high profile case such as this that collapses in these circumstances, I totally understand the concern that people have. But I am not here to commentate on that, I am simply here to deal with the constitutional issues, because that is my role as Prime Minister, and I have said that I don't believe that the constitutional position should change.

QUESTION:

How can you be so sure so soon after the case that Buckingham Palace has behaved properly, because there have certainly been many allegations that that is not the case?

PRIME MINISTER:

I am afraid one of the things that I have learned over the few years I have been Prime Minister in dealing with issues that involve the Royal Family, there are often many, many allegations made, but I think that Buckingham Palace has answered these questions perfectly rightly and I do believe, as I said to you a moment ago, that The Queen herself has behaved entirely properly throughout. When she gave the information to the Prince of Wales, that information was immediately passed on to the prosecuting authorities. And I do say to you that had she attempted to interfere in the case, or had any member of the Royal Family attempted to interfere in the case, they would have been subject to entirely the opposite criticism. And I hope people have some understanding of the difficult situation The Queen is in in circumstances such as these.

Right, unless there is anything else on that, I have really got nothing more to say on that. So shall we move on?

QUESTION:

I would like to have your opinion on the outcome of the Turkish general elections yesterday, did they give you the results, give you the pleasure, displeasure or are you neutral, and how do you think the outcome will affect the European Union and Turkish relations?

PRIME MINISTER:

I was actually interested in the statements that have been made in Turkey following the election results. I look forward very much to working with the new government. As you know, Britain has been a strong ally of Turkey in relation to European Union membership, and I welcome the positive comments towards the European Union that have been made, and I hope very much that we can work closely to resolve issues in relation to Turkish membership of the European Union, but also in respect of European defence where there are outstanding questions in relation to European defence and NATO. So obviously it is not for me to say who should have won the Turkish election, we work with whatever government the Turkish people elect, but I was encouraged by the statements that were made last night and I look very much forward to working with the new Turkish government.

QUESTION:

Is the Asylum Bill now doomed, or can it be pulled out of the fire even at this late stage? And if it is going to fall, does that mean that the camp at Sangatte will not close?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well it is certainly not doomed, we want it to go through and I believe it will. But it is extremely important for people in the House of Lords who are considering these issues to realise that there is a very, very strong feeling, rightly, in this country that we have to sort the asylum system out, and this Bill does that, and in my view it would be wrong if people were voting against measures that are absolutely necessary to make a difference. Now we have entered into an agreement with France and the new French government has been immensely helpful on this, not just about closing down Sangatte, far more than that. The French authorities are allowing checks to be made, effectively acting as an immigration barrier into Britain.

Now that is a big step forward for the French authorities to do, but they are anxious for us to eliminate the pool factor on people coming in and claiming asylum, and that is something we should do in any event but it is also important as part of the deal with them. So the short answer is I believe this Bill will go through, I am sure that it will go through, it should go through and I really do urge people, particularly some of those Conservatives who have been opposing some of these asylum measures, it really is the height of political opportunism to say that we have to tackle this asylum problem and then frustrate the very legislation necessary to do it.

QUESTION:

The problem is that the French offer is dependent on for example these seven new centres opening, and surely the constitutional problem is that it would be difficult to invoke the Parliament Act if this Bill has changed so much that it is no longer the same Bill that started the process.

PRIME MINISTER:

That is absolutely right, which is why we are emphasising to people that we want this legislation through, but I am still hopeful and confident that it will.

QUESTION:

Some in your party have been critical of the Tory Party for putting a three line whip on the gay adoption clause, but if your own party was given a free vote tomorrow on asylum centres and voted according to their consciences, a lot would vote against the very centres which you are saying are so important.

PRIME MINISTER:

They are different issues, and I think it is entirely right incidentally that we do have a free vote on the adoption issue, and I can't for the life of me understand why the Conservatives have decided not to, because I think that is obviously a matter where people have strong views of individual and personal conscience if you like. But I think in relation to asylum it is the policy of the government. I don't actually agree with you that there are vast numbers who disagree with the policy. I think most Members of Parliament realise this is an issue that has to be dealt with.

And as you know we have tried to do this in our relations with the French, we are trying to put through new legislation in Parliament, and we are also working closely with other countries across Europe to deal with this issue and it is an issue all over Europe. As any European journalist here will tell you, this question of asylum and immigration is a real problem and it needs a concerted effort, and the measures that we are taking are a necessary part of damping down any pool factor that leads to excessive numbers of applications here.

QUESTION:

Can I ask you about the 7 British citizens held in Guantanamo Bay, and in particular the 3 from Tipton in the West Midlands, Shafiq Razul, Asihik Bell and Rahood Ahmed (phon). Are you satisfied that the government has fully discharged its consular responsibilities to these men, and in particular can you answer the questions that have been put to us by Shafiq's family, why hasn't the government done anything about the detained men, what is going to happen to them and how long will they be held?

PRIME MINISTER:

We of course have done things in relation to them. We have made sure that the conditions in which they are held are proper, we have had access to them and spoken to them of course, as you would expect us to do, and I am aware this is a very, very unusual situation and I understand the concerns that people have. But let me try and explain to you the problem from our perspective. I think we can see from what happened in Bali a few weeks ago, this terrorist threat is not over, it is very active and very real right round the world. Some of the information that we are getting, it is important to relay back and interrogate and question those people who are still at Guantanamo Bay.

Obviously this is a situation that cannot go on forever, of course we realise that, but at the moment we believe that there is a necessary reason for detaining them, and I simply say to you that some of the information that we have had about potential terrorist threats in the world has come from interrogations carried out with those people in Guantanamo Bay. So I know it is a highly unusual and difficult situation, I understand that, but I hope people also understand that we are dealing with this terrorist phenomenon, which has not gone away, which is a very real and live threat, and I think it would be irresponsible of us not to take every step we possibly can to make sure that we have investigated every lead on it.

QUESTION:

The Chief Economic Adviser to the Treasury suggested there is a limit to the amount he can bring market forces into public services, he is suggesting that limit has been reached or you might compromise the ethos of the public services. Is that the case?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well of course there is a limit on how far you want to extend the market into public services, which is why what you require is to try and maximise consumer choice, make the reforms necessary that we are doing, whilst at the same time retaining the ethos of the public service, equality of opportunity, equality of access, and that is precisely what the government programmes are designed to do. And I think you will find if you read those comments carefully that they were aimed at ideas coming from the Conservative right rather than from the Labour Party.

QUESTION:

How confident are you now that we will get an agreed UN resolution on Iraq by the end of this week, and while understanding your desire not to set a deadline, given the length of time this has gone on, broadly how much longer can we go on?

PRIME MINISTER:

I think it is a perfectly good point. We are reaching the point of closure I think and I don't want to pre-judge the negotiations, but they are proceeding reasonably satisfactorily. And just so that you understand what is the issue here, the absolutely critical issue for us is that we get an inspection regime in there that doesn't have the problems the last one had, because if we do get that situation we will be straight back into the playing about that we had over the last 10 years, and I am reasonably confident we will get that resolution, I can't be tied to a specific day at the present time.

QUESTION:

The Treasury faces a black hole on tax revenues coming up in the medium term, there is pressure on public spending, inflation is running at three times the rate in the private sector in the public sector, and you have got enormous pressure on wages in the public services. Would you still stand by your promise that there will be no more boom and bust?

PRIME MINISTER:

I believe that to be the case and I think if you look at the situation of the British economy, we are wearing the economic slowdown as well, if not better than virtually any other major country in the world. And if you look at our levels of unemployment now, they are levels we can be really proud of in this country. We have created now over a million and a quarter extra jobs. When unemployment is going up in many, many other countries in the world, it is still falling or stable here. We are creating new jobs. And yes of course there are tremendous pressures in the public sector, I guess there always are, that is part of government, but we are also making it very clear that any changes that we make in investment in our public services has got to be tied to reform, and if people make excessive wage claims I am afraid we are going to have to resist them, as we have shown over the past few weeks.

QUESTION:

Just before the weekend Saudi Arabia made it quite clear that with or without United Nations backing they wouldn't allow their soil again to be used for any military action which may arise against Iraq. How does that leave any military provision or planning that is going on, and how does it leave our relations with the Saudi government?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well our relations with the Saudi government are very good, as you probably know. And in relation to any military planning or military action, I think we should cross that bridge when we actually get to taking military action if that is what comes about. There will be all sorts of statements made at this stage but let's wait to see what happens if and when we actually get there.

QUESTION:

It has been reported that several senior members of your Cabinet are fundamentally opposed to top-up fees. What is it that attracts you to the top-up fees solution as opposed to a graduate tax solution in terms of higher education resourcing?

PRIME MINISTER:

I haven't prejudged any solution. What I have said is, and this is all you can do when you have got a review on and you are looking at all the various options, the first thing you do is analyse the problem, and actually there is total agreement, I don't merely mean within the government obviously but I mean right across the spectrum on these following points.

One, that the present situation with universities, the status quo cannot continue because the universities aren't well enough funded; secondly, that universities require more freedom and more independence from government; thirdly however, that we have to improve the access of poorer students to university; and fourthly, we mustn't do anything whereby we effectively put a financial penalty or barrier in between people and their desire to go to university.

Now beyond that there are no predispositions one way or another, we have just got to get the best system. But this is a problem, and it is interesting actually, it is a problem being tackled now virtually the world over in any major industrialised country because people are expanding the numbers going to university, universities themselves are undergoing tremendous change, they are in strong competition, the top universities are basically almost in a world premier league competing against each other, you have got to make sure they can compete effectively.

But the point is when you say you are reviewing the situation then it is important to review it with all the options open, and then people will want you go to close off this option or that option as the review goes on, I think it is best just to wait for the results of it. But I think you will find that the proposals we come out with eventually meet all those principles that I was setting out, because the one thing is for sure, the status quo can't remain.

QUESTION:

On the need for new measures to tackle anti-social behaviour, who do you blame for the failure of the existing anti-social behaviour orders to tackle the problem? And also do you think the proposal to have 24 hour licensing is likely to increase or decrease the tendency towards anti-social behaviour on the streets?

PRIME MINISTER:

On the latter point, actually most people who have looked at this situation and analysed it think that more flexible licensing probably improves the situation, but there is a debate you can have about that. On the rest, and it is interesting in a sense if I can say this respectfully to everyone here, that someone from regional television actually asks the question about anti-social behaviour, because I do say to you, in communities in this country this is absolutely at the core of their concerns, and anti-social behaviour orders have been very successful where used, but the truth of the matter is they have been used less readily than we want them to be and that is because the court procedures have been too cumbersome, the bureaucracy too great, so we are going back and trying to strip all that down and make it easier.

And the whole point about these fixed penalty notices is that they are a simple method of enforcement. If you are an average police officer out on the beat and you have got low level vandalism, graffiti, drugs, disorderly behaviour, it is very, very hard in those circumstances to go through an entire court procedure. If you are going to do that it will take days of your time, there are always the problems of getting someone to court in those circumstances. To have a fixed penalty notice that means that it is for that person if they want to challenge it to come back to court, is hugely beneficial. So you say why haven't they succeeded so far, actually anti-social behaviour orders have succeeded where used, but they are not used nearly enough, and we have got to, as I say, toughen up the law in this area significantly. But I tell you, these issues to do with fly tipping, vandalism, graffiti, this type of thing is absolutely central to the concerns of people in communities up and down this country.

QUESTION:

How serious was your row with the French President Chirac and how that might have modified or affected your policy of being at the heart of Europe? And are you still committed to the euro, because some are saying that might have been a way of starting to disengage in some ways?

PRIME MINISTER:

On the latter point, certainly not. We remain absolutely committed in principle, in practice the five economic tests have got to be passed. You will be well familiar with this mantra now. On your first point, I can say two things about this. Firstly, well there was a real disagreement, sometimes you have real disagreements, there is a disagreement over the Common Agricultural Policy and the need for reform in Europe because I think it is absolutely vital. I believe our consumers think it is vital, I think the outside world thinks it is vital.

There is also, and I totally understand this, a French frustration about the British attitude to European defence because we are insisting that this is done on a basis of an agreement between Europe and NATO. Now I understand why some people in France then believe that that somehow means we have lost our enthusiasm for European defence. That is not true. We still believe it is entirely the right way to go, but it will only succeed in my view if, one, it is done on a proper basis so that it is complementary to NATO; and secondly that we lever up defence capabilities. So there is a disagreement there.

But the other thing I was going to sat to you was this, that I sometimes think in Britain we have just got to have more self-confidence about these disagreements, disagreements happen in Europe, and people take their positions and they take them very strongly and there it is. It doesn't mean to say you are any more pro or anti-Europe because you take those positions. I happen to believe that in Common Agricultural reform in particular we were fighting a case not just on behalf of Britain but on behalf of Europe. But there it is.

QUESTION:

... why is the British government so critical of ... as a banking centre?

PRIME MINISTER:

No it is not for that reason. You know these discussions, I had a discussion with the Swiss President-elect this morning about it. We understand the concerns that Switzerland have, but just so that you understand our concerns, it is that as banking develops, and particularly in an increasingly globalised market, we need better systems of exchange of information and it is not that we want to disturb the confidentiality of people's transactions, but we do need to make sure that for the proper running of tax systems and so on there is genuine transparency and openness. I know this is obviously a sensitive issue in Switzerland, it is a sensitive issue with us here, we are working hard to try and resolve it and I hope we can resolve it optimally by the end of the year.

QUESTION:

Do you think the consultants, when they oppose your reforms, are acting as a vested interest, or do you think they oppose them for good reason, or you don't agree with it and therefore their opposition should be taken seriously?

PRIME MINISTER:

The consultants first of all are entitled to vote whatever way they vote and they have made it clear that they don't accept the new contract. But I hope they accept from our perspective two things. First that it is not wrong for us to say that people should be subject to proper systems of management. If they are working for the National Health Service and being paid money then it is important that we do have a situation where people are properly managed and Trusts and hospitals are able to make the decisions they need to make in the interests of patients.

The second thing is that we had set aside for the new Consultants Contract literally hundreds of millions of pounds in the next few years. Now that money is still there, we have got to find a way of using it to incentivise performance. Because I also made a commitment to the British people, which is that we would put extra money into the National Health Service but tie it to reform and change so that we are getting a more efficient system. The Consultants Contract hasn't basically changed since the inception of the Health Service over 50 years ago, so it is time that we changed it.

Now obviously we will listen to the concerns that they have, but we have got to be in a position where if we are spending these additional very large sums of money, we are getting something back for the patient. And you know sometimes when I hear the talk about the worry about targets on waiting lists or waiting times and all the rest of it, I do simply say to you I don't think it is unreasonable either that we do have such targets. After all, what the public most cares about in relation to the Health Service, I think most members of the public when they are in the National Health Service, I am not saying there aren't cases of bad treatment, of course there are and there will be in any healthcare system, but basically most people are very respectful of the treatment they get from doctors and nurses and from other Health Service staff when they are treated.

What they worry about is the length of time it takes them sometimes to get into the system, waits in Accident and Emergency Departments, waits for the operation, waits to see the GP. Now we have got to try and tackle those things and we are trying to do it co-operatively. And I do just remind you of one obvious and simple fact, that actually the Consultants Contract we put to the consultants had been agreed with their negotiators.

QUESTION:

Were you reassured by the Greek Prime Minister last week that the British plane-spotters will get a fair trial in Greece?

PRIME MINISTER:

I don't want to say anything against the Greek judicial system, for one thing that would be deeply unhelpful to the people standing trial there. I did raise it with the Greek Prime Minister really in the context of making sure that there were no delays, and I understand the trial indeed is going ahead, or the appeal is going ahead. And I think quite honestly whilst the thing is before the Greek courts, I think in the interests of those who have been charged it is probably better if I don't say anything more at this stage.

QUESTION:

Sorry to have to go back to the euro, but if the Chancellor says next June that the five economic tests have been met, how long do you think it will take from that point onwards for you and the government to convince the British people that the euro is a good thing?

PRIME MINISTER:

We have been very careful not to set times on this, so I am afraid you are going to have to forgive me if I don't launch myself on an unsuspecting press conference and do that right now. I am sure you would like me to, but I have got more and more used to resisting temptation as a Prime Minister, so I am sorry I can't be more specific than that.

QUESTION:

Your policy at the moment means we don't know whether or not there will or will not be a referendum. Given that, would it be prudent to prepare for both eventualities and legislate in advance of the result of the five tests for a referendum?

PRIME MINISTER:

No, I think we should stick to the policy we have got, which is to wait for the five tests to be done.

QUESTION:

Middlesborough Hospital claims it was following the strict guidelines regarding the CJD case last week and the Department of Health says they weren't following the guidelines clearly. Given the confusion and the fact that 24 patients are now living in possible fear of the consequences, shouldn't new guidelines be drawn up to make it absolutely clear?

PRIME MINISTER:

I think what they are doing at the moment is just looking at this. This again was a fairly unusual case and obviously I totally understand the concerns that people have, though hopefully the possibility of infection is slight, though not negligible, as the hospital itself said. But I heard the hospital comment on it and say they had followed the guidelines in their entirety, we obviously have to look at that very carefully. But as I understand it the unusual feature of this case was that the neuro-surgeons actually did not suspect a link with CJD but the consultant pathologist I think it was who did. So as I understand it the Department of Health are looking at this with the hospital in a perfectly co-operative and amicable way and we just have to make sure if there is a lacuna or problem there that it is dealt with. But I think you will find this was just a highly unusual case.

QUESTION:

Mark Durkin said at the weekend that in a meeting he had with you before Stormont was suspended, you intimated to him that you had evidence that Sinn Fein should be excluded. Did you say that?

PRIME MINISTER:

What I said was, as we all know, that there is evidence very clearly that there have been activities going on that are totally unacceptable, and I was simply discussing with him, as I was with the others, the way forward, so it wasn't a question of saying there was evidence to do this or to do that, it was a question of deciding what is the right way to approach this given that the unacceptable things that have been going on were going to lead us to a situation where we had to determine a different way forward for Northern Ireland.

QUESTION:

I want to ask about your complaint to the Press Complaints Commission about your son's university case, and are you satisfied with the press accountability system in the UK to harmonise the right to know and the privacy of celebrities and other ordinary people?

PRIME MINISTER:

Wow, they really want to know about that in Japan do they?

QUESTION:

Inaudible.

PRIME MINISTER:

You should have a discussion with your colleagues as to whether it is wise for them to acquire one or not. Look, we are grateful for the rulings that have protected the privacy of our children, and it is as simple as that really. And I find whenever I get into talking about this subject I get into difficulties, so if you will forgive me, that is all I will say on that.

QUESTION:


Following the remarks by Frank Dobson yesterday, do you accept that some of your reforms, such as specialist schools and foundation hospitals, that there is a danger they will lead to two tier public services?

PRIME MINISTER:

I have got a lot of time for Frank and a lot of respect for him and I think the issues he is raising are the issues that people will raise in relation to this. But you see the whole purpose of these reforms is to lift standards throughout the system, and I have specialist schools in my constituency, they are better schools, but they are still serving exactly the same intake of children that they were serving before they became specialist schools. The foundation hospitals are going to be treating the same NHS patients but they will be treating them to a higher quality, I hope, if these reforms work. And the reason why I am so passionate about reform is that it is the absence of reform and change, it is the absence of improvement of standards in the system that lead to a situation where the poorest kids or the poorest people don't get proper treatment or decent schooling. If you look at the school system particularly say, let's take it head on, if you look at the situation in inner city London, we are now trying to provide really high quality secondary schools and we need as many of them as we can get, that is the reason not just for more specialist schools and beacon schools in the inner city, the excellence in cities programme, it is the reason for the City Academies and so on. Why? Because it is the poorest children that will benefit from those schools.

The middle class parents or the recently wealthy ones, they can always find a way round the system, they can either buy their children's education or alternatively they can move to the right place next to the right school. It is for the poorest children in our society that we need these changes and reforms. I think this is a perfectly sensible argument to have. Does this mean that you will end up having some sort of exclusive group of schools that people will be barred from? And my answer to that is emphatically not, that what it will actually do is give children from some of the poorest backgrounds for the first time in their lives the chance to get a decent education and for these children that is their only hope in life if they can get to a decent school that gives them a good education, and so that is why I think it is important that these reforms go on, I really do.

QUESTION:

The pound has strengthened sharply this morning - by the way I think this is Trevor's question - on the back of a Reuters report saying that Treasury officials believe that the five tests will not be met. Would it not make sense to end the uncertainty now by holding the assessment and saying one way or another what you are going to do?

PRIME MINISTER:

I think the Treasury have already put out a statement saying that this report is not correct, and it isn't, and the tests will be done, they need to be done carefully and they will be done carefully and they will be done properly. But this is an area, I agree speculation is always absolutely rampant in ever quarter, but you just should not believe the reports that say the tests are going to be decided one way or another because we will tell you when they are decided.

QUESTION:

Anti-social behaviour. Prime Minister, if I went to my local police station to complain about a minor act of vandalism say, first I would count myself lucky to find a police officer there, secondly I would expect to be given at least two or three reasons why the police can't actually do anything. Will your legislative proposals make the police more visible and also more effective?

PRIME MINISTER:

I think that is a very good question, except in one part which is that I don't think it is the fault of the police often in these situations, and that is the reason why we are trying to introduce really simple enforcement mechanisms so that if people are guilty of this type of low level vandalism or graffiti they can have a fixed penalty notice levelled on them and then it is for them to come and overturn it if they want to do so. Now I would refer you to the stuff up from the West Midlands Police, what they are finding is, the police are really finding this is saving them an immense amount of case preparation time, they are able to deal with these issues far more easily and they are able then to concentrate their case preparation on the more serious crimes. And the problem that you describe, you are probably absolutely right in what you say, but the reason a police officer I think would give you is to say look if I end up on a low level vandalism where the person in the end is going to get a fine from a court, if I end up spending days and days on it then I am not doing other things that I could be doing.

So the whole purpose of this is to give simple enforcement mechanisms in the hands of the police and local authorities and others to deal with issues like fly tipping, where there are professional fly tippers, people go round and just dump the rubbish everywhere and yet we don't have simple ways of enforcing the law. It is the same with the anti-social behaviour orders, as I say they are an excellent idea, they work extremely well where they are used but they are not used as often as they should be because they are complicated to use. And the other thing I would say to you, the other point to make is that the police reform agenda is also important in this area. You see I think that the whole idea of community safety officers, there is a lot in this and it is very interesting, if you talk to Members of Parliament who have had these community safety officers or wardens come into their areas, they play a really good supportive role with the police, they don't do the police's work for them but they do give a great deal of both comfort in respect of the fear of crime, and actually help in dealing with this anti-social behaviour. Because as I think your viewers and readers would say from the regional press, I think most of you would accept this is probably one of the biggest things that you get tackled on.

QUESTION:

Scotland's First Minister has recently made it clear that beacon schools and City Academies you are talking about won't be appearing north of the border because they don't believe the comprehensive era of education is over, like you keep saying. Isn't it time to admit that the reform programmes you are talking about now just simply aren't happening north of the border and that the reforms you lay out to a UK audience are only happening in England, and as the UK Prime Minister are you disappointed?

PRIME MINISTER:

First of all, it is a principle of devolution obviously that the Scottish Executive do what they wish to do. But the situation is different in Scotland and Wales, the education system has grown up differently, the same with Wales too, and I don't think there is any harm in diversity. And I didn't take, I am not sure whether it was the Scotsman this morning, but I read in one of the papers as I was preparing for the press conference, that Jack McConnell saying that he wanted excellence in every school was a snub to me. I find that slightly odd. I want excellence in every school too. And there are different reform programmes being pursued in different ways, that is devolution, and I think it is a perfectly good principle of devolution and in the end it is for the electorate to decide. But I think you would be unfair to the Scottish Executive if you said they weren't reforming, they have the teachers terms and conditions and pay reform there. One of the best PFI contracts that I saw was in Glasgow in the secondary schooling where they are literally transforming the whole of Glasgow secondary schools, as you know, through PFI. So I think they are reforming but they will do it in their way, and that is devolution.

QUESTION:

But people have said ... foundation hospitals over their dead bodies, that is more of a snub to you.

PRIME MINISTER:

They can say what they want to say, that is up to them, that is devolution. But I suspect what will happen over time in many of these areas is that there will be a learning from each other and we will see what works and what doesn't, which is the way it should be. But there is no disagreement in the basic principles of reform. And as I say the Scottish Health and Education system have grown up in a different way, I don't think it is any great surprise in some ways either that for example the Scottish consultants voted in favour of the Consultants deal. I think there are different traditions.

QUESTION:

The mis-use of fireworks are considered to be an anti-social scourge in many communities and there is a growing campaign, supported by my newspaper and a number of your MPs, to ban the sale completely to the general public and limit it to organisers of licensed displays only. Why is the government so reluctant to go down this path?

PRIME MINISTER:

First of all it is absolutely true, we have received thousands of names on petitions in relation to this, it is a very, very big issue. The hesitation is simply as to whether you go over the top in trying to regulate to tackle a particular problem and we just need to get the balance right, which is what we are looking at. And we already have introduced some measures to tighten up the law here, we just need to look at it further. It is like a related issue which is to do with air guns and so on, which is another very, very hot issue within the whole area of anti-social behaviour. When you are approaching legislation on something like this you just have to be careful that you get the balance right between dealing with a problem and ending up so heavily regulating people that you actually prevent people enjoying things that they can do in a perfectly lawful way. So that is the problem we are trying to tackle.

QUESTION:

While accepting that crime and anti-social behaviour is a major issue for your constituents in the north east, would you also accept that another big concern is the desire for a greater measure of regional devolution and will this be similarly reflected in your programme over the coming year?

PRIME MINISTER:

As you know there is the provision for people if they want to go down the regional devolution route to vote for it, I know there are very strong voices raised in that direction in the north east, but in the end it is for the people to decide and we have provided the opportunity for them to do so.

QUESTION:

How confident are you that the fire-fighters and the employers will reach a settlement in the dispute without a strike, and how much pressure are you putting on all the participants to make sure that there is no strike? And if £30,000 or 40% was too ambitious, what do you think the fire-fighters should settle for?

PRIME MINISTER:

I think it would be somewhat unwise of me to answer the last part of that question. We are not putting any pressure on other than to say obviously it is extremely important that this is settled, but it has got to be settled on a responsible basis, and that is why we obviously couldn't accept a 40% wage claim. And at the moment what is on the table, as I understand it, is the 4% which was offered before under the existing formula, and then you have got George Bain's review which is looking at whether there can be a new formula that links any further pay increases to modernisation and changes in working practice. And you know I hope the dispute can be settled, but the government's position hasn't changed from the beginning and can't change because we have got to act responsibly across the whole picture of public sector pay.

QUESTION:

... the issue of gay rights is very much in the news and I am just wondering if you can give us an indication of what your attitude is towards the repeal of Section 28 and are we likely to see any kind of government legislation on this in The Queen's Speech?

PRIME MINISTER:

I don't think I should prejudge what will be in The Queen's Speech. All I can say to you on Clause 28 is what we said in the manifesto. And I have always said why I don't think that clause, or Section 28, reflects the reality and that is why we replaced it with codes of conduct and practice and so on in the previous parliament. But as to what is in The Queen's speech, I am afraid you will have to wait on that.

QUESTION:

The Daily Telegraph said this morning that you are about to issue a fresh call-up for the Reserves, can you tell us whether they are correct or not?

PRIME MINISTER:

In respect of the story, which I saw this morning, first of all I think I am right in saying that the orders that were laid a couple of weeks ago are laid simply as a matter of routine. There are no proposals as yet to call up reservists, if there are any we will announce them in the proper way.

QUESTION:

All this week we are highlighting the crisis in Britain's care homes. What can you say to reassure the thousands of elderly people who face a very bleak future with their care home closing as a direct result of over-regulation and red tape?

PRIME MINISTER:

The first thing to say is that we have listened to people's concerns on regulation and red tape and we have made adjustments accordingly. Although it is important also to realise that there are many people worried about the standards of care in some of the homes, and that also is a concern.

The second thing is that we have done the best thing we possibly can do, there is a massive increase, way way above the rate of inflation, going to local authorities for social services, and that is resulting in far higher fee levels being paid out to the care homes now for this coming year. We have simply got to work on this, but we have got to realise that there are other factors affecting this as well. For example some of the care homes are on very, very valuable real estate and people are selling.

Our responsibility as a government has got to be to make sure we have proper standards in place, but not overburdonsome, and we have listened to people on that and made changes accordingly; and secondly, to try and up the fee levels because I think you will find with many of these homes the real reason why they have got a difficulty is that the fee levels have been very, very low over the past few years. Now they are getting a far higher than inflation increase and we are going to work with them very hard on seeing how we can make sure that we stop any further outflow of care home places being lost.

The other thing I would say to you is it is important that people don't get this out of context as well. We are at the same time making a big investment in homecare packages as well. Now I think that is important. I am not saying, you know there are people who need to be in care homes and for the first time nursing care is actually being given free to people in those homes, not personal care I understand, but nursing care is. And the other thing we are trying to do is to allow more elderly people, where they want to, to be looked after in their own home and there are tens of thousands more of those homecare packages now being provided every year and that is an important part of it as well.

QUESTION:

I would like to ask you about the referendum in Gibraltar in a few days. What effect do you think it may have on the talks with the Spanish government, and can the Gibraltarians expect any change in the approach of the British government to the talks after this referendum?

PRIME MINISTER:

The simple position, again as I have said many times before, is that there can be no change in Gibraltar's constitutional status without the consent of the people there. Now we are still in discussion with Spain about the possibilities of getting a better relationship, because that is in the interests of people in Spain, in Britain and Gibraltar too, and obviously the people of Gibraltar are entirely entitled to say whatever they wish to say, but we have given a very firm commitment that there is no change in their constitutional status without the consent of the people there. We do think it is important however that we carry on talking to Spain about an issue that is a problem for all of us.

QUESTION:

Do you think the EU Stability Pact is stupid? What reforms would you like to see to it, and would you make that an issue at the next EU economic summit in six months time?

PRIME MINISTER:

I am going to give you a reasonably studied and diplomatic response to that, if you don't mind. I would say to you, one, that it is obviously important that there is fiscal and monetary discipline within the European economy, that is important for all our economies. It is important also however that that discipline is not so rigid that it doesn't take account of the reasons why people may spend money, and in particular the difference between borrowing for investment and borrowing for consumption. Now there is a debate going on on how the Stability and Growth Pact must be reformed. I think the important thing is however that the only reforms that will ever work are those that buttress fiscal discipline, not undermine it.

QUESTION:

Do you see the result of the Turkish election as a hindrance to the campaign against Iraq, especially now less neighbouring countries are willing to let their soil be used by allied troops?

PRIME MINISTER:

I think that the Turkish government will obviously make up its mind on this on the basis of the merits and we are not at the point yet of seeing how this all plays out because we have got the UN resolution still to come, and I don't believe that the new government will significantly change attitudes in relation to that.

QUESTION:

Can we come back to the European agricultural policy. It is not clear, if you were talking in defence of Europe and other countries, why the agreement of just two countries - Germany and France - has been accepted by the majority of the people. Probably you were in the majority and Germany and France are in the minority. Why has it been accepted?

PRIME MINISTER:

I think you should relate that information widely.

QUESTION:

Inaudible.

PRIME MINISTER:

I think it is probably more than that. It is perfectly understandable why France and President Chirac has a position which I respect and understand on this in relation to the Common Agricultural policy and that position is clear. But there were two aspects, the absolutely vital thing to realise is that the reason why the reporting of this was complicated was that there were two quite separate aspects to the French-German deal, one of which was actually positive in my view. The positive one was to put a cap on CAP spending after 2006. Now that wasn't in the original Commission proposals, so that was if you like the undertaking that Germany extracted. What is unacceptable as the price of that though is that you take Common Agricultural policy reform prior to 2006 off the table. Now in the end Europe came to that position, it accepted the cap on spending, but it accepted too that Common Agricultural reform should remain on the table. So in that sense, in the end we came to a common position, but it is important to realise, I think people didn't understand this fully, but one part of that French-German agreement was something we welcomed and took as a step forward from the original Commission proposals.

QUESTION:

My listeners will be very interested to hear the details of your plans for anti-social behaviour and so forth, but also your party told voters that if they didn't give a four-x for the licensing laws they should vote Labour. When is the relaxing of those laws actually going to happen?

PRIME MINISTER:

I think you know The Queen's speech is coming up shortly and part of the programme of the government is to deal with this issue. We believe that there should be greater flexibility in licensing for the reasons that have been given. And I think that in the end the evidence that we have is that greater flexibility may help in the fight against anti-social behaviour because at the moment the very fixed nature of the hours sometimes means that you get particular problems outside pubs and city centres at particular hours of the evening. So I am afraid I can't give more details because we are about to do that in The Queen's Speech.

QUESTION:

You just have.

PRIME MINISTER:

Well I just have, but I have tried to do it as gently as I could because I know the value of Radio 1 Newsbeat.

QUESTION:

How is your closeness with the Bush Administration, especially on Iraq, put it then in your relations with your EU partners?

PRIME MINISTER:

I think that it is a good question. There are obviously different positions in Europe over the Iraq issue, but sometimes you have got to take a long view of these things and I don't have any doubt at all that Europe and America should stand together on these issues, that it was important that Europe takes seriously the issues of weapons of mass destruction, that it is important the US takes seriously the concerns of people that we need to do this through the United Nations. Now I think we have the potential to get people therefore into the same place where we accept the issue is serious, we tackle the issue but we do it through the United Nations route. And you know there will be all sorts of people in Europe, some even on the other side of the Atlantic, that want to put divisions into this relationship, that want to magnify any problems, that want to minimise any agreements. And I can't tell you how strongly and passionately I believe this, if Europe and America divide off from each other the world becomes a more dangerous place, and in essence in the end it really is the old cliché that what unites us is more important than what divides us.

It is true and it is important that if you like what I am really trying to get to is the position where Europe takes seriously our responsibilities to deal with these issues like terrorism and weapons of mass destruction, but the US also understands that there is a broader agenda of concern to others and that it is important that we do this on the basis of the maximum possible international consent and unity, and I think that is a reasonable way of putting the two positions together. But the moment people think they can play Europe and America off against each other, then every bad lot in the world will be doing it and we will be the losers of it.

QUESTION:

You said that Britain is wearing the economic downturn rather better than other countries in the world. I take it that you include in that some other European countries such as Germany. Does that fact not make it rather more difficult for you to sell the euro, of which they are part, to the British people?

PRIME MINISTER:

No, because it depends what reasons there are why Europe is difficult in parts of its economy, and I would say there are some European economies that are immensely successful. So I think the issue for Europe is one about reform and in particular economic reform which is why we have been pushing that agenda so hard. And what is necessary, and as you can see from the new legislative programme of the German government, and there is focus on this, what is necessary is to get the necessary structural reforms through in Europe.

QUESTION:

Is Peter Riddell right to say that you are increasingly preoccupied with the crisis on pensions, and if so what are you going to do about it?

PRIME MINISTER:

I do believe there is a real issue in relation to pensions and I think it is interesting, when the TUC for their Trade Union Congress did a poll of the things that worried people most, pensions came out top of the list by a long way. It is for that reason we are working very hard at the moment on the Pensions Green Paper because what we need to do is to make sure that we are providing vehicles for people where they can save for their pension that are cost effective and easy to understand, and that means quite a big change in the way that pension provision is implemented in this country. So I don't want again to say what is going to be in that, but this is something we haven't just woken up to, there is a reason we had the Sander Review, the other reviews into how pensions are working, we accept this is a serious problem, but the way of dealing with it I think has got to be to provide the vehicles for people to save that they can actually understand, use easily and are reasonably cost effective, because at the moment I think there are large numbers of people that are in a position where they don't feel that. And we have also obviously got to look at the whole issue to do with defined benefit, defined contribution schemes, and that is what we are doing.

QUESTION:

Inaudible.

PRIME MINISTER:

As I say, I am not going to prejudge what is in the Green Paper, but you saw what we said when we last looked at this issue. I think the issue is really how we enable people to save more for themselves, recognising that if they want a decent income in retirement that they are going to have to make provision for themselves because there will be a limit to what the state can do, although the state will be doing more through the pension credit and other means. But the real problem, I think if you talk to most people about pensions, it depends what income level, but if you are talking at middle income level, the worst problem they have is they find it very, very difficult to identify the right type of vehicle for saving, they feel the information they get is very poor and they have no real confidence that they are able to navigate their way round the system. Now all those things were part of the reviews we set up and we will be publishing the results of the government's review and position shortly.

ENDS

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