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UK Government Briefing: 11am Monday 7 February 05

Briefing: 11am Monday 7 February 2005

Briefing from the Prime Minister's Official Spokesman on: Cancer Story, Northern Ireland, Asylum and Immigration, MOD Carriers, Hercules and Arrest/MI6.

Cancer Story

Asked to comment further on the Sunday Times story about cancer rates and programmes that looked "catastrophic", the Prime Minister's Official Spokesman (PMOS) said that the Department of Health (DoH) could brief the journalist more clearly. The PMOS said there was a dispute regarding the reliability of the report, but he recommended people spoke to the DoH as they were the experts.

Northern Ireland

Asked what the Government's reaction was to the further discouragement of sanctions by the Irish Government, and when the IMC report would be published, the PMOS said it had not been decided when the IMC Report would be published. It could be this week, though our response might take longer, but it would be better to wait until it had been published before commenting further.

Asylum and Immigration

Asked if the Prime Minister intervened with Charles Clarke in order to "toughen up" today's immigration announcement, the PMOS said the rumours were wrong. One of the first things Charles Clarke said upon his appointment, was his recognition that there were real issues to address on asylum. The Prime Minister first highlighted the need to have a top/bottom review of this matter last April, followed by an announcement in July that there would be a separate Five Year Plan on immigration and asylum. The Prime Minister further referred to the matter in September, but the important thing today was that it would be Charles Clarke at the Dispatch Box. He had taken the time to go through the plan and ensure he was happy with all elements of it. As he had said yesterday on "Breakfast with Frost", there had been genuine improvements in the number of asylum applications, which were down 67% since October 2002. There were still other areas that needed to be addressed, whilst at the same time making the case for managed migration, and also for proper asylum procedures. This was therefore very much Charles Clarke's Five Year Plan, but of course he had worked hand-in-hand with the Prime Minister on it.

Asked if we challenged the estimates based on Home Office figures that almost 2 million legal and illegal immigrants had entered the UK since Labour took office, and was it case of "too little, too late", and also, was there a maximum number or ceiling of people for population of the country, the PMOS replied that in terms of setting a quota, the Government believed that was not the way forward. This was because all the evidence from professions and business leaders found that the number of migrants who could use their skills to help the economy fluctuated. There needed to be a flexible process, rather than an arbitrary figure, therefore, setting fixed limits did not work. The important thing was there should be strict controls that worked, and that was what the Government had been evolving over the past few years. We had decreased the number of asylum applications by 67% since 2002, and the average time to decide a case was now 2 months, whereas it had been 20 months, we had tightened border controls by having liaison officers in mainland Europe by screening vehicles, and we had stepped up action on illegal working and removal of failed asylum seekers. We had also introduced the Work Permit scheme. The PMOS said that 67% decrease was not "too little, too late", but rather, it was a significant turnaround, but as the Prime Minister said yesterday, there were still genuine concerns that needed to be addressed. The Prime Minister believed the idea of a "magic bullet" was wrong, and what was needed was an evolving system that responded to the facts: there were those who abused the systems, both illegal asylum seekers and illegal employers. However, migration was of genuine benefit to the economy, therefore there had to be a balanced approach.

Asked if there would be some people who were sent back to dangerous countries, the PMOS said that in terms of genuine asylum seekers, both the Prime Minister and the Home Secretary wanted an asylum system that worked. The Government was opposed to the idea of an arbitrary number of asylum seekers, because if there was a catastrophe or political crisis in one country, for example, how would it be dealt with if there was a limit. What was needed was a system that worked towards the individual, as well as the general need, and this was what the Government was aiming for. The PMOS said that there was also a claim that the number of asylum seekers had fallen due to a rise in Work Permits. The NAO had reported they saw no evidence of any link between the two.

Asked to clarify "arbitrary limit", the PMOS said the Government thought it was not right to apply a fixed limit at the start of a period, irrespective of the needs of the economy, or the facts on the ground.

Asked what the status was regarding EU border controls, the PMOS emphasised there were problems regarding removals when countries did not want to take people back. That was the reality, which was why it was so important that Europe worked together. The Euro Database allowed people to send an asylum seeker back to country where they first landed.

Asked if the government agreed with Sir Ian Blair that there should be proper border police controls, the PMOS said that part of the Government's approach was intelligent-led actions. This worked, for example, when liaison officers were sent to Belgium and France, as it had reduced the pull factor there. The liaison officers targeted certain ports and areas, therefore reducing the ability for illegal immigrants to get through the system. The PMOS said there was a very good intelligence-led effort going on, and the idea that resources were spread very thinly across every port was not one that the Government felt would be effective.

Asked if the lack of a Points System meant that in effect, the queue was being reordered, and everyone would "get in eventually", the PMOS said no, it was to ensure that people with the right professional skills were the ones who came to the UK. The emphasis was on skills, as the need for skilled labour was clearly there. If there was not the skilled labour available, there would be an inflation problem in terms of wages and availability of labour.

Put to him that there was a "massive" demand for unskilled labour, the PMOS said that the demand for unskilled labour, be it in the tourist industry or agriculture, for example, was properly evaluated. Once the demand for unskilled labour had gone, the people left the UK.

Asked if the laws applied to EU citizens, the PMOS said people should deal with the facts, rather than the myths. The suggestion of a big influx at the time of Accession had not happened.

Asked why it had taken so long to come round to a Points System, when the Australians and Canadians had had one for a long time, the PMOS said different countries had different systems. The Australian system only applied to certain categories of people, and was very expensive to operate - around £50,000 per head. The PMOS said people should not underestimate what had already been done, but it had resulted in significant advances with regards to introducing controls. What we needed was greater transparency, as well as great controls, so people knew the circumstances under which they could gain access. They would also know why and for how long they could gain access.

Asked what happened to the Points System that was announced in November 2001, the PMOS advised the journalist to speak to the Home Office.

Put to lobby that there was a Points System in operation, the PMOS interrupted and said to journalists that they should all wait until the announcement later in the afternoon for the details before speculating.

MOD Carriers

Asked if there was any announcement from the MOD about carriers, the PMOS said he was not aware of any. He pointed out that it was also a commercial matter, so he would not be able to comment beforehand.

Put to him that they were not commercial carriers, the PMOS said they were commercial companies that were affected by such matters.

Hercules

Asked for any further information on the Hercules crash last week, the PMOS said the crash investigator was in charge of the timing of any announcement.

Arrest/MI6

Asked if the Prime Minister had sought assurance that MI6 had not been involved in the arrest of Martin Mubanga, the PMOS said Charles Clarke had said all that needed to be said about the situation.


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