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No. 10 Afternoon Press Briefing From 7 Dec 2007

Briefing from the British Prime Minister's Spokesman on: Chinese Foreign Minister, Downing Street Christmas Tree, Reform Treaty, Supermarket Price Fixing, President Barroso, Prime Minister Prodi and English Lessons.

Afternoon press briefing from 7 December 2007

Chinese Foreign Minister

The Prime Minister's Spokesman (PMS) started by updating journalists on the Chinese Foreign Minister's visit to London yesterday when he met with David Miliband and had a pre-arranged meeting with Simon McDonald (the Prime Minister's Foreign Policy Advisor), which the Prime Minister dropped in on for approximately 20 - 30 minutes. At this meeting they discussed a variety of things including the Prime Minister's visit to China in the new year; the situations in Darfur and Burma and the proposals the Prime Minister set out in his Mansion House speech on the form of international institutions.

Asked if the Chinese supported the proposals Britain was putting to the UN next week re measures against Iran, the PMS replied that we should wait and see; there would have to be a discussion of the situation regarding Iran next week. The Chinese had been supportive in the past; obviously we wanted to do this on a multi-lateral basis, so we should wait and see how things developed over the coming week. As had been increasingly clear following the report from the US earlier this week, it remained the case that the situation regarding Iran remained serious.

Asked if the issue of Chinese industrial espionage came up, the PMS said he was not aware that that had come up in the Prime Minister's meeting with the Chinese Foreign Minister and it was best to check with the Foreign Office to see if it came up at any other meeting.

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Asked if the Prime Minister saw the Government's relationship with China as more like the relationship France was pursuing or Germany's more stand-offish relationship, the PMS said that the Prime Minister was focussing on what Britain's relationship with China was, rather than trying to come up with a relative ranking. The Prime Minister believed that Britain should have a strong relationship with China. Insofar as there were human rights issues, these would be raised in the appropriate way, but the Prime Minister had always said, as Chancellor and now Prime Minister that the UK's relationship with China needed to be a strong one; we shared a number of common interests and China was a key international partner.

Dowing Street Christmas Tree

Asked why there was no Downing Street Christmas tree, the PMS replied that there was a Downing Street Christmas tree; it had been put up that morning.

Reform Treaty

Asked why the Prime Minister thought it was not necessary to go and sign the Reform Treaty in person, the PMS replied that we had made no such decision; as he had said endlessly at numerous lobby briefings, it was the Prime Minister's hope to be able to go but we had logistical issues around the timing of the Liaison Committee. There were lots of precedents for people other than the Prime Minister signing European treaties; one should be under no doubt at all that whoever signed the treaty was fully supported by the Prime Minister. He negotiated it, it would be signed on behalf of the Government, of which he was the head and he took full responsibility for it. It would be unwise at this point to conclude that he was not going to be able to go there to sign it.

Asked repeatedly about the timing of the signing of the Treaty and whether or not it could be signed earlier in the day, the PMS said that if people really wanted to go over these issues again he would be more than happy to, but he felt as though all lines of potential questioning had been exhausted. The committee had already kindly agreed to move the timing of their hearing by bringing it forward an hour; we were in continuous discussion with the Portuguese presidency re arrangements. This would be resolved in an appropriate way ahead of the summit next week.

Supermarket Pricing Fixing

Asked if the Prime Minister was concerned that two of the country's biggest supermarkets were fixing the price of milk, the PMS replied that it was often forgotten that it was the Prime Minister, when he was Chancellor, who brought forward very significant reforms, in conjunction with Patricia Hewitt (then Secretary of State for DTI), regarding the competition regime; it was this Government that introduced the independence of the Competition Commission and it was the Prime Minister, when Chancellor, who had introduced the independence of the Bank of England. That had happened in 2001 and as a result of that we had seen, not commenting on specific cases, competition policy with more edge, with benefits for consumers.

Put that in this case fines would be paid and that the Prime Minister must have a view, the PMS replied that we would not normally comment on individual decisions taken by other independent bodies like, for example, the Bank of England; we would not comment on individual companies and specific decisions taken by them, but this was a good example of the new framework operating in practice.

President Barroso

Asked if the Prime Minister had been upset with President Barroso's comments regarding the EU Africa summit, the PMS said one should not draw that conclusion. The Prime Minister had made his position very clear regarding the reasons why he did not feel as though it was appropriate for him as the British Prime Minister to attend this summit given that Mr Mugabe was attending. That said, we did want the summit to be a success; we were participating in the summit, although not at Ministerial level; Baroness Amos was representing the Prime Minister and she had been talking about what the British Government was hoping to achieve from this summit on the radio this morning.

Prime Minister Prodi

Asked what would be on the agenda for the Prime Minister's meeting with the Italian Prime Minister, the PMS replied that the discussions would be wide-ranging; obviously there was the Lisbon summit next week where we were expecting a discussion about the European response to globalisation. Other live European and international policy issues would be covered, such as Kosovo. It would be a wide-ranging and fairly informal occasion.

Asked why there was no press conference, the PMS replied that it was a private lunch at Chequers so that imposed some restraints on what could be done in relation to media. On this occasion they wanted to have something a bit more informal, out of the spotlight; an opportunity to have a slightly longer and informal discussion.

Put that Prime Minister Prodi was having a press conference at Heathrow, the PMS said that that was an issue for Prime Minister Prodi. There was no particular significance in regards to not having a press conference; as had been stated, this was an informal lunch at Chequers. The Prime Minister had an excellent relationship with Prime Minister Prodi, which went back many years; they had worked very closely together when the Prime Minister was Chancellor and Prime Minister Prodi was at the European Commission.

English Lessons

Asked if the Prime Minister thought it was time to consider cutting the entitlement to free English lessons, the PMS replied that if it was a specific departmental issue, then it would be best to raise it with the department. In general the Prime Minister was very supportive of the principle that people coming into the UK should integrate and learn the language of this country.


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