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Press Briefing: 11am Wednesday 23 February 2005

Press Briefing: 11am Wednesday 23 February 2005

Briefing from the Prime Minister's Official Spokesman on: Lord Chancellor's Legal Advice (Royal Wedding), Attorney General's Legal Advice (War), Education, Ken Livingstone and Belmarsh Detainees.

Lord Chancellor's Legal Advice (Royal Wedding)

Asked what kind of advice Downing Street was giving to Buckingham Palace the Prime Minister's Official Spokesman (PMOS) said that in terms of the advice we gave, as we had set out at the time of the announcement, we had to give formal advice on issues such as legality, which had been done. Today the Lord Chancellor would be setting out an explanation of that advice. Asked if there was any change to the question of legality the PMOS said that there was no change. This would simply be an explanation of the advice that had been given. Without pre-empting the statement people would be able to see that it sets out the position very clearly and the analysis that went behind that position. Asked if it was Downing Street's responsibility to advise the Palace on whether they could marry in Windsor Castle the PMOS said that that was a decision for the Royal Family. Asked if it was still the Government's position that no special legislation was needed the PMOS said that was correct.

Asked if the Prime Minister would still be attending the wedding following the news that the Queen would not be attending the PMOS said that he was not aware that an invitation had arrived yet therefore he preferred to wait until one had arrived as the polite thing to do was for the Prime Minister to RSVP rather than to make a public announcement.

Asked why Members of the Lords should accept the Lord Chancellor's advice given his record on reporting legal matters and when one fact incontestably wrong about whether the wedding could be held at Windsor Castle, why should they accept what they were going to be told this afternoon, the PMOS said that people should wait to hear the statement first before attempting to dismiss it out of hand. In terms of when a law officer was asked for his legal opinion he could only offer his opinion, which was what the Lord Chancellor had done. Asked if any consideration was given to holding the wedding in Scotland the PMOS said that such issues were a matter for the Royal Family.

Asked why on the day of the wedding announcement people were not told the legal advice and why the Lord Chancellor was now setting out an explanation the PMOS said there was a distinction between advice and explanation. What was being provided today was an explanation.

Asked what precisely the Government had been advising the Palace on, the PMOS said that what the Lord Chancellor would set out today was the explanation of the legal advice we gave on the question of a civil marriage. Questioned further about the precise issues, the PMOS said he would not get into he details of the discussion between the Government and the Palace but in terms of the legal advice which he would explain today, it was on the question of whether there could be a civil ceremony.

Asked if the Prime Minister would attending the wedding, the PMOS said that he was unclear himself about whether the Prime Minister had received an invitation. However generally the Prime Minister would no doubt inform those sending the invitation rather than the press.

Attorney General's Legal Advice (War)

Asked why the Government had not published the Attorney General's advice the PMOS the Attorney General had made it clear that he had given that advice, that it was his independent advice, and that in his opinion the war was legal because Saddam had broken UN resolutions. Therefore that was the basis, which he had set out at the time, why he came to the view that he had. Asked why the advice on the wedding was available but not the advice on the war the PMOS said it was because there was a distinction. The Lord Chancellor was setting out the reasoning. The Attorney General had also set out his reasoning but not the detailed advice.

Asked if Downing Street disputed Phillipe Sands' version of events, in other words that while at the time we were told the Attorney General had said there was a legal basis for war but there was in fact no such advice but it was based on a conversation between the Attorney General, Baroness Morgan and the Lord Chancellor, the PMOS said that we were not in the habit of doing book reviews and were not about to. Neither were we in the habit of going into discussions within Government. But the Attorney General in his statement this morning had set out very clearly that it was his legal view which he had expressed independently. Asked whether the suggestion that the opinion presented to Ministers was drawn up in Downing Street by those people, as the perception had been that it was driven by No10 seeking stronger advice, the PMOS said that what was important was what the Attorney General had said. The legal advice was from the Attorney General and that was what counted. As such that suggestion was wrong.

Put to him that, politically speaking, it was more important for the spokesperson from Downing Street to go on the record about the legality of the war than the Attorney General, the PMOS said that legally it was what the Attorney General said which counted and that the assertion that someone else wrote the Attorney General's advice for him was wrong. Put to him that Professors Sands had said that there was no actual written judgment on the legality of the war but rather the decision was made on the basis of a discussion between Downing Street officials and the Attorney General, the PMOS said that he did not give book reviews.

Asked if the Attorney General had actually written his statement himself, the PMOS said that the Attorney General had made it clear that it was his words and judgment. That was what was important.

Education

Asked about the statistics released today by OFSTED which indicated that 50% of boys and 30% of girls left Primary school without sufficient literacy skills, the PMOS said that what was also important was to recognise as well that OFSTED found that more children than ever were reaching the acceptable standards in English and Maths. Results in Key stage 2 showed that attainment in English had gone up 13%, in Maths by 15%. International studies showed that standards were high and rising. That did not mean that we had yet reached the standard we had wished for. But the trend was going in the right direction.

Ken Livingstone

Asked if the Prime Minister still felt that Ken Livingstone should apologise, the PMOS said that he had dealt with this issue yesterday albeit in a somewhat disembodied form, he was happy however to reiterate it for the Evening Standard because of their local interest. The Prime Minister had given his view last week, but emphasised that it was a matter for Ken Livingstone. Ken Livingstone had reached his judgment and that was where the Prime Minister's view stood.

Belmarsh Detainees

Asked why it was now safe to release people who had been in prison for 3 years, the PMOS said that what was important to recognise that to some extent the debate over control orders had been dominated by one measure. What had been missed was that the new legislation proposed a range of measures. If you went through the range of measures there were many ways in which the authorities could restrict the activities of an individual, by doing that the authorities could monitor the activities of someone in a way which was impossible under the previous legislation. Therefore since we had that range of measures, the police believed this was a much better way to control activities which caused concern. That was why, for instance, the Chairman of ACPO's terrorism and allied matters committee, the Chief Constable of Sussex had said that he fully supported the Government's measures. He had said on the 22 February that the Police welcomed what the Government had proposed and strongly supported the announcements made by the Home Secretary. The constantly evolving nature of the threat posed by international terrorism demanded that those charged with countering that threat had the tools to do the job. The new legislation gave the police the different control orders they needed to do the job. Asked if the Government might derogate from the European Convention on Human Rights to keep the terror suspects in Belmarsh, the PMOS said that the House of Lords ruling meant that we had to respond. Asked why no one had come up with these ideas in the 3 years leading up to the verdict by the Law Lords, the PMOS said that the circumstances had evolved since 9/11 and when these people had been detained. So had the thinking about this problem. As the Chairman of the terrorism committee in ACPO had said, the circumstances were constantly evolving.

Asked why the Home Secretary was confident of getting his legislation through on time, the PMOS said he believed that when people actually listened to the merits of the case and looked at what was proposed, and looked at the need to counter the terrorist threat then people would recognise that this legislation which would only apply at the extreme end to a few individuals was necessary. Asked by the Guardian correspondent if the Belmarsh detainees were expected to attend the Royal Wedding, the PMOS noted that he was in good form today.


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