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Downing St Briefing 11 November

Monday 11 November morning government press briefing
[11 November 2002]


PRESS BRIEFING: 11AM MONDAY 11 NOVEMBER 2002

PAUL BURRELL/ROYAL FAMILY

Asked if the Prime Minister was concerned about the current wave of stories about the Royal Family, the Prime Minister's Official Spokesman (PMOS) said that he hadn't spoken to the Prime Minister about this specific matter. He reminded journalists that the Prime Minister had made his position clear at his news conference last Monday in the aftermath of the collapse of the Burrell trial. He had nothing further to say on the matter. Pressed further, the PMOS said that these were matters for Buckingham Palace.

Questioned as to whether Downing Street had been in touch with the Palace 'to offer comfort and advice', the PMOS said he did not recognise such descriptions. Pressed as to whether there had been contact at any level, the PMOS said not as far as he was aware. Asked if the Prime Minister was due to have an Audience with the Queen this week, the PMOS said no. Audiences usually took place on Tuesday evenings. However, this Tuesday the Prime Minister was hosting the traditional Eve of Session drinks for Ministers at Downing Street. Consequently, it had been agreed some time ago that there would be no face-to-face meeting with the Queen this week. However, as he understood it, the Prime Minister and the Queen would speak on the phone at some stage tomorrow.

QUEEN'S SPEECH

Asked if the Prime Minister had discussed the Queen's Speech with the Queen, the PMOS said that we never commented on conversations between the Prime Minister and the Queen.

Asked why the Prime Minister had briefed on the contents of the Queen's Speech in advance to the Observer when Parliament should have been informed first, the PMOS said that if journalists looked through various White Papers and read the Government's response to the Auld and Halliday reviews, nothing the Prime Minister had said should have come as any surprise. He had been talking about the principles behind the Government's approach to issues such as criminal justice and anti-social behaviour. He had not gone into the detail of any future legislation, and had certainly not talked about specific Bills.

Put to him that it had been a surprise to see that the Prime Minister believed people were still afraid of street crime despite five years of cracking down on crime, the PMOS said the Prime Minister had been making the point that if only 20% of crimes were solved, then there was clearly something fundamentally wrong with the criminal justice system. That meant we had to look at it again and tackle the problems in a fundamental, rather than a short-term, way.

Asked if the review on Hunting with Dogs would be published to coincide with the Queen's Speech, the PMOS said that it would be published when it was ready. He did not anticipate it being this week.

FIRE DISPUTE

Asked if he would agree that the FBU's response to the Bain Review was not encouraging, the PMOS said that since Downing Street had not yet received a copy of the Review, it was a bit too soon to give a response to it. The Review had always been designed to help fire fighters with the issues of pay and modernisation. We would await its conclusions. Questioned as to when we might receive the Review, the PMOS said that as he understood it, Professor Bain was intending to release it to the parties concerned later this morning. He was not, however, intending to publish it. Asked whether the parties themselves might release it for general consumption, the PMOS said that that was a matter for them. No doubt Sir George would express his view as to whether he wanted that to happen or not. Put to him that the Review should be published because it had been commissioned by the Government, the PMOS said that we had asked Sir George Bain, an esteemed professor of labour relations, to do whatever was best to help resolve the dispute. The publication of his Review might not be the best way to do that.

Put to him that the Bain Review had not originally been designed to resolve the dispute but to ensure that the fire service was modernised, the PMOS said that the purpose of the Review was to look at the overall structure of the fire service and examine the issues of pay and modernisation. As the threatened strikes had loomed into view, it had made sense, if possible, to bring forward the elements relating to those particular issues. That was what Professor Bain had done and we thanked him for it. Asked if we would accept the FBU's criticism of the Bain Review's recommendations as 'outdated' or if we considered them crucial to the modernisation of the fire service, the PMOS repeated that we had not yet received the report. However, given Professor Bain's background, knowledge of and commitment to the issue, we expected an important piece of work which we hoped would be taken seriously.

Asked whether the Deputy Prime Minister would attend the FBU/employers talks tomorrow, the PMOS said that we would of course keep in touch with the parties. However, we had no expectation of direct involvement at this stage.

WAR ON TERROR

Asked if we had received specific intelligence warning of possible terrorist action in the UK in the run-up to Christmas, the PMOS said that as the Home Secretary had made clear in his Frost interview yesterday, the Home Office document published last week had not been based on one specific piece of intelligence, but on an overall recognition that the level of threat was just as high now as it had been this time last year. The lapse of time since the September 11 attacks meant that people might have become complacent. Intelligence from various parts of the world suggested that the level of threat was just as high now as it had been this time last year and that therefore we needed to be vigilant. At the same time, we had to recognise that what terrorists wanted to achieve was disruption to society either by physical terrorism or by fear of it. Therefore we had to strike a balance. That was precisely what the Prime Minister would be in his speech to the Lord Mayor's Banquet tonight. Put to him that the Times had quoted a Downing Street spokesman as saying that there was a higher level of threat than this time last year, the PMOS said that he too had been somewhat surprised to read such a thing given that other papers had quoted a Downing Street spokesman - himself in fact - as saying that the level of threat was as high as it had been last year.

Asked if we were dealing with a renewed terrorist threat in light of reports that British and American intelligence services had picked up on a lot of Al Qaida 'chatter', the PMOS said that it was never our policy to comment on specific intelligence matters. That said, and as the Home Secretary had observed yesterday, there was concern resulting from intelligence from various parts of the world. However, that was of a general, rather than a specific, nature. As a result, not only was a document published last week, but also the Prime Minister would be focussing on the issue this evening.

Asked to explain what being 'vigilant' meant in practical terms, the PMOS said that it was about the Government doing everything it could to thwart terrorist attacks and to prepare for them in cases where it had not been possible to do so. For business, including airports, this was about keeping security at a high level. For the general public, this was about being alert and reporting suspicious activity to the police. The threat post-September 11 was, in many ways, qualitatively different from that we had faced during the period of IRA terror. However, the response from the public had to be pretty much the same. Questioned as to whether we would actively prepare the public for terrorist attacks, for example through smallpox vaccinations, rather than just through exhortation, the PMOS said that people should not under-estimate the importance of exhortation. It was through simple vigilance that the public could help the police thwart attacks and provide additional intelligence. Whatever action was necessary would be carried out. However, it was important to recognise that there was a balance to be struck - between being vigilant and helping to defeat terrorism, and not allowing the terrorists to achieve their objective by other means, i.e. paralysing society, as well as the economy, through fear. Prior to the Bali attack, for example, we had received a general warning which had covered somewhere between 60 and 70% of Indonesia. Surely people were not seriously suggesting that the country should have come to a halt, with all the economic consequences of such a move, at the time of the warning. Asked how close we were to a decision to vaccinate the general public against smallpox, the PMOS said that it was not helpful to get into a discussion about particular kinds of threat unless we had to. As we had said last Thursday when the Home Office document had been published, the danger of putting a particular emphasis on a particular kind of attack meant that the public might think that that was the only kind of threat we had to worry about. On the contrary. People had to recognise that the threat could be 'conventional' or 'unconventional'.

Questioned as to whether the Prime Minister would use his speech tonight to warn people to be prepared to see more armed police on the streets, the tube and trains for example, the PMOS said that the Prime Minister would not warn specifically of such activity. However, he would underline that people had to understand that at certain times there would be a heightened security presence. What he wanted to see was a mature understanding by the public as to why we had to do certain things at certain times in certain ways. The terrorists wanted to bring the economy to a halt and damage people's ability and entitlement to lead a normal life. We would do everything we could to stop them achieving those objectives. Asked whether the Government was planning a huge public information campaign to inform the public about the type of things they should be looking out for, the PMOS said that there was nothing he could point to at this stage, although no doubt it would happen if it was thought necessary.

Asked if he was implying that we were more at risk in the run-up to Christmas in light of the timing of the publication of the Home Office document and the Prime Minister's speech this evening, the PMOS reminded journalists that we had been saying pretty similar things this time last year. We had said then that the threat from terrorism would not be over in the short term and that we needed to recognise that the war on terror would be a long-term campaign. It was clear that public vigilance would be needed for quite some time. Put to him that David Blunkett himself had said yesterday that we needed to be vigilant in the run-up to Christmas and the New Year, the PMOS said that we always needed to be vigilant. He was making the point that people shouldn't think that after Christmas and the New Year they wouldn't need to be vigilant any more. Terrorists didn't work like that. This was a long term threat.


PENSIONS PROTEST

Asked for a reaction to a Whitehall protest by pensioners today, the PMOS said that the Government was concerned about pensions. That was why we were launching a period of consultation with all the relevant people to discuss the issue.

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