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United Kingdom Govt: Press Briefing


United Kingdom Govt: Press Briefing

LEGAL REFORMS

Asked if he had been implying this morning that the whole Criminal Justice Bill would be knocked down if the jury trial clause was rejected by the Lords today, the Prime Minister's Official Spokesman (PMOS) said we believed that this Bill stood as a whole and that each component within it was important. The PMOS said that the point he had been making this morning was that we regarded all elements of the Bill as important and that we wished to see it on the statute book in its entirety. Asked if the headline 'Government Threatens to Scrap Whole Bill if Clause is Voted Down' was an accurate reflection of what he had said this morning, the PMOS reminded journalists that he had also said this morning that we would be happy to listen to constructive suggestions, but would not concede on the principles. He had been underlining how we believed that the Bill as a whole related to the modernising justice agenda across the board. Put to him that he had been implying that the whole Bill would be knocked down if the Lords rejected the trial by jury clause, the PMOS said that we would have to wait and see what happened today. We wanted to see the totality of the Bill on the statute book, not only 90% of it, because we believed that the Bill in its entirety was right. Obviously we would be happy to listen to constructive suggestions. However, we believed that the principle of judge-only trials in cases where there were concerns about witness and jury intimidation and also serious fraud offences was right. The cost of protecting jurors from intimidation was substantial. For example, it cost the Met £3.5m a year, which was the equivalent of 26,000 officer days a year. The reason why we were moving in this direction was because we were concerned that there might be people who set themselves outside the criminal justice system by virtue of jury intimidation. This was a way of addressing that problem.

Put to him that the confusion lay in the tactics he had used this morning when he had implied, rather than stating outright, that the Bill would be scrapped if the clause was rejected, the PMOS repeated that he had been making clear that we wanted the whole Bill on the statute book. Pressed as to whether the Bill would be withdrawn if such a thing was not possible to achieve, the PMOS said that people should be patient and wait and see how the Lords voted. All the measures in the Bill were measures which had full Government support.

Questioned as to whether the Government would invoke the Parliament Act if necessary, the PMOS said that we were not at that stage yet given the fact that the vote in the Lords had not yet taken place. He reminded journalists that there would also be a spill-over session in September. Once the Lords had spoken on this issue, the Government would decide how to respond. As both we and the Home Office had been underlining, we were fully committed in principle to the Bill. We were more than happy to have a debate on the argument or the facts. However, the argument that was being mounted appeared to be that because things had always been done in a certain way, the status quo should be maintained. We disagreed with that view because we believed that there were specific instances where the process of justice would be aided by having judge-only trials. These would obviously be the exception, not the rule.

Questioned as to why we hadn't threatened to withdraw the Health and Social Care Bill last week when there had been a very strong possibility that the vote on foundation hospitals would be lost, the PMOS said that last week was last week. This week was this week. Put to him that that the threat to withdraw the Bill looked like a face-saving device, the PMOS said he would disagree. He pointed out there had been a number of detailed pieces of work by Halliday and Auld for example. The Bill which was being brought forward was a considered response to those reviews.

Asked if he would agree that the measures were an indication of a fundamental shift away from what had been a central tenet of law for some time, the PMOS said that the proposals in the Criminal Justice Bill amounted to a fundamental redrawing of the criminal justice system. It would be inaccurate to say that the Government was scrapping trial by jury. We were not. It was worth noting that the measure contained in this Bill was different to that contained in the previous Mode of Trial Bill inasmuch as we were talking about a specific number of instances where cases would be heard by judges only, rather than juries - the point being that this would be the exception not the rule. We were simply proposing to introduce judge-only trials in cases where it was better in the interests of justice to move to the new system.

DR KELLY

Questioned on Dr Kelly's statement to the Foreign Affairs Select Committee (FAC) where he said that he didn't believe he was Andrew Gilligan's main source on the Iraq dossier the Prime Minister's Official Spokesman (PMOS) said that he thought we should wait for Dr Kelly to finish his statement before the Government responded to that.

Put to him that Dr Kelly had already made his position very clear the PMOS said that if you looked at what Andrew Gilligan had said in his evidence to the FAC he had said that he had four sources. The first had discussed Al Qaida and Iraq links; the second had discussed the so-called "dodgy dossier"; the third was the source for this story; and he discussed WMD with the fourth after the story had been broadcast. Asked specifically, "if you have discussed the dossier with any of your other sources" by John Maples in the FAC, in terms of prior to his broadcast, Andrew Gilligan had said "no". Dr Kelly had said that he had discussed the 45-minute claim with Andrew Gilligan, we knew that. Put to him that we did not know that, and Dr Kelly had denied that, the PMOS said that in the statement made last week, asked why the 45-minute claim had been put in, Dr Kelly had said "probably for impact". Asked if he had told the Government that he thought he was the source of Andrew Gilligan's story the PMOS said that in our statement last week we had said that we could not say with any certainty who was the source of the story. Questioned further the PMOS said that if you went back to what he had said, he had made it quite clear that in the absence of the BBC answer to the simple question concerning whether Dr Kelly was the source of the story or not -and given that it was not a matter of source protection - it was not an unreasonable assumption to question how many people Andrew Gilligan had met in a central London hotel to discuss WMD on the 22nd of May. Only a handful of people at the BBC knew the answer and it was easy for them to say one way or another. Dr Kelly had also said in his statement last week that he hadn't discussed certain issues which had appeared in Andrew Gilligan's story so this afternoon did not take us any further forward in that respect. Asked how he could therefore be considered to be the main source for Andrew Gilligan's story the PMOS said that was a perfectly simple question for the BBC to answer, without in anyway endangering their source. That was a perfectly straightforward thing for them to do and they had not chosen to do that. Equally the BBC had not chosen to say whether they thought the story was true or not. Dr Kelly had come forward voluntarily saying that he had met Andrew Gilligan in a Central London Hotel, on the day we now knew Andrew Gilligan himself had said that he met his source in a Central London Hotel. The PMOS said he didn't know how many people would be coming forward from the Government to make similar claims. He thought it was unlikely to be many. Questioned as to whether the Government had asked Dr Kelly whether he thought he was Andrew Gilligan's main source the PMOS said that we had said in the statement and repeated on numerous occasions that we do not know if he was the source. Given that the BBC had not been able to say whether he was or not - a relatively straightforward proposition, given that it was not a matter of source protection- it seemed not an unreasonable assumption.

Asked about the Government's claim that Dr Kelly had been acquainted with Mr. Gilligan over several years the PMOS said that given Dr Kelly had done briefings with the press in his previous role, it was also not unreasonable to say that he had been acquainted to Andrew Gilligan for some years.

PRIME MINISTER'S TRIP TO WASHINGTON

Asked by the Express if the Prime Minister was neglecting the domestic agenda given that he was about to go on a protracted trip abroad the PMOS said that the same paper had made an identical charge when the Prime Minister had gone to India and Pakistan in January 2002. Journalists could not on the one hand say that the Prime Minister was neglecting the domestic agenda as the same time as we were pushing through radical and controversial reform, such as Higher Education funding, Criminal Justice, reforms to the judiciary and Foundation Hospitals. It was a big and busy agenda. This was the end of the summer session in mid term, it was not surprising that there was a bit of static and that people were getting a bit hot under the collar. That was par for the course. The question that had to be asked was, were the fundamentals sound? The answer was yes. We had low interest rates, low inflation, low unemployment and Britain was respected in Europe and throughout the world. More money was going in to public services and a program of reform for those public services alongside it. Of course we were not saying that everything was unalloyed happiness. The Government recognised that for a large number of people life was a struggle and there were big challenges ahead. However to say that everything was unremitting gloom as some had written in the last few days was going some.

In terms of the Prime Minister going abroad, Prime Ministers did go abroad from time to time, it was an important part of the job. Asked who would in be in charge when the Prime Minister was on holiday given that the Deputy Prime Minister was also on holiday at the same time the PMOS we hadn't given the details of when the Prime Minister would be going away. We could deal with that at an appropriate time. The PMOS said he realised that this story was a hardy perennial which inevitably came round every time the Prime Minister went abroad. A journalist remarked that it was good one nonetheless.

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