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UK Press Briefing: 11am Monday 28 February 2005

Press Briefing: 11am Monday 28 February 2005

Briefing from the Prime Minister's Official Spokesman on: Palestinian Conference, Terror Laws, Northern Ireland and Smoking.

Palestinian Conference

The Prime Minister's Official Spokesman (PMOS) briefed journalists on the details of the meeting on Palestine tomorrow. He said that this meeting would be one of the largest international gatherings on the Middle East for some time, with a total of 23 states and 6 international organizations being represented. The PMOS listed the countries sending Foreign Ministers which included: Algeria, Bahrain, Canada, China, Egypt, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Jordon, Kuwait, Luxembourg, Morocco, Norway, Oman, Qatar, Russian Federation, Spain, Tunisia, UAE, and the United States. The cast list would include Kofi Annan, Javier Solana, Condi Rice, the Heads of the World Bank and IMF, and showed the high level of delegation attending.

The PMOS said there will be three key parts to the meeting: first, Mahmoud Abbas would set out his comprehensive vision for strengthening the Palestinian Authority (PA) in the areas of governance, economy and security; second, the international community would set out its commitments in support of the Palestinian plan; and third, agreement on follow-up mechanisms would ensure that these commitments were followed through.

What we expected to see was a comprehensive, coordinated and practical work plan for both the PA and the international community, so that the Palestinians could make rapid progress towards meeting their obligations under the Roadmap, giving the Israelis greater confidence to push ahead with their disengagement plan and get back to the Roadmap.

The PMOS reminded journalists of the Five Point Plan that President Bush and the Prime Minister set out on 11th November 2004 at The White House. The first part was re-stating the vision of two viable states living side by side. The second part was the Palestinian Elections. The third part was this Palestinian meeting tomorrow, which was about helping the PA becoming viable. The fourth part was regarding Israeli disengagement, and the final point was getting back to the Roadmap. The PMOS said the suicide bombing in Tel Aviv was not only to be condemned, but also should be recognized as an attempt to disrupt this process. It therefore reinforced the need for this sort of practical meeting, which was aimed at addressing the obstacles in getting the Roadmap back on track. That was why it was an important meeting.

Asked if the delegations would be making firm offers or pledges of manpower and money, the PMOS said no. Rather, this conference would set the stage for a donor conference, which we expected to see in the next few months. What this conference would do would be to clarify the different roles that different parts of the international community would play. For example, there would be the establishment for the first time of a US- led coordinating group providing practical support to the Palestinians on security, including finance and training. There would also be a new role for the EU Commission and the World Bank in the governance and economic areas in coordinating support. The conference was about defining the roles the international community could play, and setting out the implementation steps beyond this meeting.

Asked what the Prime Minister's movements would be tomorrow, the PMOS said he would be chairing the meeting, and there would be a press conference in the afternoon.

Asked why Abu Mazen wanted to come to the meeting tomorrow, the PMOS said the journalist should ask Abu Mazen. In terms of our meeting with Abu Mazen at Christmas, he made it clear that he saw this as an opportunity for the Palestinian Authority to build on the practical steps and help to establish the PA. The key to this was that both Israel and the Palestinians saw this meeting as a way to take the new steps back to the Roadmap It was a new way to start building confidence on either side, and to provide the help, especially to the Palestinians, that would allow them to make progress on the economy, terrorism, and on political structures that were necessary to become a viable state.

Terror Laws

Put to him that the Prime Minister had signalled possible "compromises" on Friday, and was it now correct that today was not seen by the Government as a day to alter its proposals, but rather to explain them further, the PMOS said that what was important was, first, to set out why we believed we needed these range of measures to protect this country. Second, why the Home Secretary had such an important role. But, thirdly, it was also vital that we acted speedily if the circumstances required. The PMOS said he did not want to pre-empt what the Home Secretary had to say this afternoon in the House of Commons.

Asked if it was a principle for the Government's position that the only way to defend national security was for the Home Secretary to act first and then put it to a judge, the PMOS said the Prime Minister had addressed the issue last week in PMQs. The Prime Minister had said that the important thing was that we were able to act quickly, and that if the security services and the police judged there was an emergency situation, then people had to act to safeguard national security. The PMOS said again that in terms of precise details, people should wait for the Home Secretary's speech later this afternoon.

Asked why it was not "just as quick to get a High Court judge out of bed as it would be to get Charles Clarke out of bed", the PMOS replied the important thing was that whatever happened, people could act quickly. The country must not be put in a position where people knew of a potential risk, but were not able to act on that risk.

Asked if the Home Secretary would say anything new this afternoon, the PMOS said it was better that people waited for the debate.

Put to him again that the balance of the argument appeared to have shifted with regards to the need to act quickly, the PMOS said that the argument had always been that if there was a threat to security, then people should be able to act quickly, and to be able to do so without in any way jeopardising national security. In terms of judicial input, as the Prime Minister and Charles Clarke both said last week, people had raised concerns about it, especially when someone's liberty was in question. Those were issues that the Government said it would discuss. Therefore it was better that people waited for the debate.

Asked why the current Prevention of Terrorism Act could not be used, the PMOS said that he was not a lawyer, but his "non-lawyer" explanation was the difference was between arresting somebody with a view to charging them on specific evidence, and the situation where there may be intelligence, but not intelligence that could be used as evidence.

Put to the PMOS that the Prime Minister had said in a "Woman's Hour" interview that there were "several hundred people plotting" a terrorist attack, and did that therefore mean there would be several hundred house arrests imposed, the PMOS replied: no. The Prime Minister had used the same phraseology last week in PMQs, and he made clear that with regards to the extreme end of the control orders, we envisaged that it would only be used against a very few people. However, in extreme circumstances, extreme powers were needed, and we had always made it clear we would only use those powers in a few exceptions. The PMOS emphasized that the whole point about the control orders was that they were a more sophisticated range of powers than were available at the moment. Therefore, people would have the power to vary the restriction according to the individual, and according to the threat level that the intelligence services believed the individual posed.

Northern Ireland

Asked about the implications of and the Government's attitude's to the demonstration yesterday in Belfast, the PMOS said that we had always believed that anyone who carried out a murder should be brought to justice. That was a very simple demand from the family, but the PMOS thought that demand was put forward more eloquently by the family. All we would say was that those responsible for the murder of Mr. McCartney should be brought to justice, and we supported the family in that.

Smoking

Asked if the PMOS could "shed any light" on a debate amongst Cabinet colleagues about John Reid's smoking in public places proposals, the PMOS said he was not aware of any debate on the matter.

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