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UK Govt Press Briefing: Unemployment, Ed, Iraq


UK Government Press Briefing: Unemployment, Ed, Iraq

UNEMPLOYMENT STATISTICS

The Prime Minister's Official Spokesman (PMOS) drew journalists' attention to the latest unemployment figures which had been published this morning. They showed that unemployment was at its lowest level since 1975. No doubt the good news would be competing with 'I'm a Celebrity...Get me Out of Here' in the column inches stakes tomorrow morning if past form was anything to go by.

EDUCATION

Asked to confirm reports today that the Government was planning a manifesto pledge to extend school opening hours for the purposes of increased childcare opportunities, the PMOS said that manifestos were party political and therefore not a matter for him. However, the Education Secretary had answered questions about this issue in media interviews today. The Government recognised that there was a real value in building up the role of schools as a centre in the community delivering a range of services. That was why, as set out in the Children's Green Paper last year, we were moving forward with the idea of 'extended schools', i.e. schools which offered a full range of services, including childcare and health on site, with at least one such school in each community. Schools already had flexibility over their own opening hours. For example, many were introducing breakfast clubs and after-school clubs. However, the Government's proposals needed to reflect the needs and wishes of parents and headteachers on the ground and that was what they would do.

Asked about the cost implications of such a scheme, the PMOS said that the allocations for education had been set out up until the next Spending Review, which was due in the summer. He pointed out that the Government was already investing heavily in childcare places, Children's Tax Credit, Sure Start, breakfast clubs etc. This was clearly an area where the Government was already focussing its attention.

Asked if this was a 're-announcement' in the light of the fact that pilot schemes were already up and running in London, the PMOS pointed out that he hadn't announced anything. He had already made clear that work in this area was already being taken forward. He was simply answering questions based on reports which had appeared in a couple of newspapers this morning, the main point of them being the suggestion that the scheme could be rolled out nationally.

IRA

qAsked if the two attacks in the last twenty-four hours would have implications for the timetable to hand over power to the Iraqi people, the PMOS said no. We were continuing to work towards the same timetable. There was no point pretending that the last twenty-four hours had been anything other than very grim and difficult. Dissidents and terrorists were clearly deliberately targeting Iraqi citizens who wanted to help rebuild their country. However, neither the Iraqi people nor the Coalition were going to be bombed and intimidated by those who stood for nothing beyond their own prejudices and hatreds. We were determined to continue with the programme of reconstruction. The timetable for the hand over of power remained that which had been set out.

Asked if there was a 'fallback' option in case the timetable slipped, the PMOS said that despite the gravity of the two attacks, it was important for people not to lose sight of the big picture. There were many positive things happening in Iraq. The Coalition was continuing to work towards the timetable, which we had always acknowledged was challenging. Sadly, this was not the first time we had seen terrorist attacks of this nature. Nevertheless, it was important for us to remain focussed on the prize which had guided us from the outset - a free Iraq for the Iraqi people by the Iraqi people.

IMMIGRATION

Asked how large an 'influx' of workers from Accession countries would be welcome in the UK in the light of apparently conflicting views from Denis MacShane and David Blunkett, the PMOS said that he was unable to provide cast-iron figures at this point. They were not conflicting views. Dr MacShane had simply been referring to the explanatory notes to the Accessions Act which stated that the Government could take action if it became necessary to do so. The situation remained as we had set out. Work was ongoing within Government to look at the issue of 'benefit shopping', in particular, and ways we could address it. We hoped an announcement would be made shortly.

Asked if there was any reason as to why the Government was unable to follow the lead of the Dutch Government and issue a deportation order to thousands of failed asylum seekers, the PMOS said the Government recognised that the issue of removals was extremely important. As the Home Secretary had set out many times, we were doing more than ever to tackle the problem through the implementation of our end-to-end asylum policy. However, energy at the moment was most focussed on preventing asylum seekers entering the country in the first place. There was no doubt that we had already had considerable success in reducing the number of applications. However, we were not complacent. Obviously this was something that needed to be maintained. One of the problems which previous administrations and this one had had to deal with was the fact that a desire to remove a failed asylum seeker did not necessarily equate with that individual actually leaving the country. Detention centres etc were making a difference, but no doubt this challenge of asking people to leave, and then making them leave, was one other countries were facing as well. That said, our removal figures were rising.

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