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Downing St Press Briefings - 26 January 2005

Afternoon Press Briefing: 3.45pm Wednesday 26 January 2005

Briefing from the Prime Minister's on: Incapacity Benefit, MG Rover and Iraq Handover.

Incapacity Benefit

Asked for further information about the article in the Financial Times regarding incapacity benefit, the Prime Minister's Spokesman (PMS) repeated what the Prime Minister's Official Spokesman had said earlier that it was inaccurate. She said that the Government would set out a Five Year Plan for the DWP shortly.

MG Rover

Asked about an article in today's Times that said the Government was going to offer "sweeteners" to Shanghai Automobile Operation to allow them to help MG Rover, the PMS said the journalist should speak to the DTI for further information.

Iraq Handover

Asked about the Prime Minister's comments about the handover of control after the Iraqi General Election, and the withdrawal of troops from various areas, the PMS said the Prime Minister was setting out a timeline, rather than a timescale. Once the elections were over, the plan was for our troops to leave the country once the job had been completed. We were there for as long as the Iraqis would like us to be. Once the election was over at the weekend, we could then look forward to making a plan for the troops to leave Iraq. We were not setting a timetable, rather indicating a general plan. The PMS said that yesterday Prime Minister Allawi had also set out his views about what would happen, with the aim being that troops would withdraw when considered appropriate.

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Morning Press Briefing: 11am Wednesday 26 January 2005

Briefing from the Prime Minister's Official Spokesman on: Europe, Bellmarsh/Guantanamo and Incapacity Benefit/New Deal.

Europe

Asked about behind the scenes discussion of the European question, the Prime Minister's Official Spokesman (PMOS) said that the question was fairly straight forward and was arrived at in a straight forward manner. Asked to clarify, the PMOS said that it had been arrived at without too much discussion.

Bellmarsh/Guantanamo

Put to him that the issues surrounding the legal status of the detainees at Belmarsh prison could be characterised as a 'muddle', the PMOS said that the statement would be an attempt to recognise, on one hand, the serious concerns there were about security. These concerns had been recognised by the Special Immigration Appeals Commission and the Court of Appeal, both of whom had upheld the Home Secretary's conclusion that there was a public emergency threatening the security of the nation and the lives of UK citizens. On the other hand we had to balance those concerns with the need to meet our international obligations and meet the concerns of the House of Lords. While it was clear from events around the world and from intelligence that the threat remained serious, it was important to balance the legal concerns and that was what Charles Clarke would try to do. Asked if we could not just exempt these measures from the Human Rights Act, the PMOS said that we did have to take cogniscence of legal concerns and international concerns. That was what set democratic nations apart from undemocratic ones.

Asked if there were any legal powers to restrain the detainees or keep them under surveillance, the PMOS said it was better if people waited for Charles Clarke's statement this afternoon where he would set out the precise legal position and what the proposals were.

Asked if the Government was now acknowledging that detaining people at Bellmarsh had been a mistake, the PMOS said that what the Government acknowledged was that this was a unique situation. What was important was to recognise the real difficulty that we had in responding to a such unique situation. Simplistic answers were not going to deal with this very real problem. You had to think this through and balance the differing priorities. However as the Home Secretary had made clear, as indeed had the previous Home Secretary, what we could not do was compromise this countries national security. At the same time we had done our best to meet our international and legal obligations.

Asked if this development had been deliberately timed to coincide with the release of four more British detainees from the US detention facility in Guantanamo Bay, the PMOS said no. The time frame for this had been set by the House of Lords decision before Christmas.

Asked if there had been any arrangements made with the US authorities to keep the Guantanamo bay detainees under surveillance, the PMOS said that he would not get into that sort of detail. The process would be determined by the Metropolitan Police. Put to him that civil rights and human rights organisations had said that the detainees had been subjected to torture, the PMOS said that he was aware of the allegations. Over the 9 visits Government officials had made to Guantanamo the detainees had been able to raise any concerns they had and these concerns were followed through. The PMOS made it clear that those concerns weren't necessarily related to torture. Asked of the British Government had raised any concerns about the treatment of people at Guantanamo with the US authorities, the PMOS said that the Government had always said that the situation was not ideal and that we had concerns about it, that was a matter of record. We did not believe however that the men had been mistreated.

Incapacity Benefit/New Deal

Asked to comment on the article in the Financial Times about incapacity benefit, the PMOS said that as he had said yesterday the best thing was for people to wait for the five-year welfare plan which would be published shortly. Without pre-empting that, it was also worth drawing attention to what the Government had already done in this area. For example the New Deal had helped over 1 million people into work. The New Deal for disabled people had helped 45,000 people into work. The New Deal for lone parents had helped 276,000 people into work. These initiatives had helped many people make the transition into work. There had also been pilot schemes on pathways to work, helping sick and disabled people back into work, and the five year plan would build on those schemes. The Government was not starting from scratch and had already achieved a lot in this are, but the five-year plan would take us further. He would not comment on the article in the FT other than to say that it was inaccurate.

Asked what evidence there was that the New Deal had helped people to work, the PMOS said that in terms of the 1 million individuals who had found jobs through the New Deal. Put to him that other people had found jobs, in some cases faster, the PMOS said that may be the case but what the New Deal had done was help people acquire the skills they needed, which was very important. New Deal 50 for instance had helped 29,000 people age 50 and over back to work as well, raised the employment of people between 50 and pension age to 70% from 65% since 1997. That was the sort of detail which suggested it worked.

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