No. 10 Morning Press Briefing From 12 Dec 2007
Briefing from the British Prime Minister's Spokesman on: Afghanistan, Iraq, Russia, Police Pay/Public Sector Pay and Lisbon.
Morning Press Briefing from Wednesday 12 December 2007
Asked about the reports this morning that the British Government had given the go ahead for Afghan President Hamid Karzai to undertake talks with the Taliban, the Prime Minister's Spokesman (PMS) replied that the Prime Minister was giving his statement regarding Afghanistan at 12.30pm but added that, to make things clear, there was no question of the British Government weakening its resolve to support the Afghanistan Government in its efforts to defeat the Taliban and everything that they stand for. As part of the coalition, we were winning the battle against the Taliban and isolating the leadership of the Taliban; we were not negotiating with them. We supported the ongoing effort by the Afghanistan Government to encourage disaffected Afghanistanis into the mainstream, as President Karzai had referred to in his press conference on Monday, but as he had also said, only if they renounced violence and accepted the Afghan constitution.
Asked repeatedly if the announcement of Lord Ashdown as super-envoy to Afghanistan was imminent, the PMS said that it was a matter for the UN Secretary General but that he would expect an announcement shortly, not necessarily imminently. He went on the say that it was not for him to make announcements on behalf of the UN Secretary General and it was not something the Prime Minister would announce.
Asked if it was felt that southern Iraq was being handed over whilst in a stable state, the PMS said that, as the Prime Minister had been saying at the weekend, we had seen a reduction of approximately 90% in violent incidents against British troops in Basra since September. At the time of the move of British troops from Basra Palace to the airport base in Basra, it was widely predicted that there would be an increase in the insurgency and violence but that had clearly not happened. As such, we were in a position to handover security responsibility to the Iraqis shortly, and we were able to do that from a position where violence against British troops had been falling.
Put that once the handover of Basra had happened things there would get worse, the PMS repeated that that had been the prediction made once we had moved our troops out of Basra Palace and that that had not materialised. This was a decision that had been taken by the Iraqi Government in consultation with us and the Americans.
Asked if the Government were happy with how we had left Maysan Province, the PMS said that we were happy with the decisions we had taken to strengthen security forces and train more army and police officers in Iraq so that the Iraqis themselves could take increasing responsibility for their own security.
Asked about the report that the Russian Government had ordered the British Council to close down its two offices outside Moscow, the PMS said that the British Council's activities in Russia were fully compliant with both Russian and international law. Under the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations (1963) and the 1994 UK/Russia Cultural Agreement, the Council was fully entitled to operate in Russia, both in Moscow and elsewhere. The British Council engaged in a broad and hugely popular range of activities across Russia, which directly benefited hundreds of thousands of Russians and we, the Council and their Russian partner organisations had every intention that these programmes would continue. We were looking to the Russian Government to honour their obligations under the 1994 Agreement.
Asked if the Government was bothered by the fact that Russia had pulled out of the European Arms treaty, the PMS said that we would have to look at exactly what they had said and consider our response.
Asked if the Government was confident that Britain's power supplies were secure, the PMS replied that these were primarily commercial matters; there were longstanding agreements in place in relation to our power supplies and that he was not aware that we had any reason to believe that this was an issue at the moment.
Police Pay/Public Sector Pay
Asked if the Prime Minister had received any representation from backbench delegations or Ministerial colleagues about Police pay, the PMS replied that we received representations about all sorts of matters all of the time; as the Home Secretary had been saying, we were very grateful for the hard work which Police Officers carried out everyday but we also had a responsibility to ensure that pay settlements in the public sector were affordable and consistent with wider Government pay policy.
Asked if the Prime Minister agreed with the Home Secretary's decision, the PMS replied that of course he did.
Put that that had not been made clear, the PMS said that he was making it clear now.
Asked if the Prime Minister saw this as a key test of his own wider policy on public sector pay, the PMS replied that clearly this had been a tighter public sector pay round than we had seen in previous years. It was important that the Government made its contribution to controlling inflation, to enable the Bank of England to keep interest rates as low as possible at this difficult time in the world economy. Of course, difficult decisions had been taken across the public sector, but, as with the tough decisions the Prime Minister had taken in the past which were not necessarily universally welcomed at the time, such decisions had led to a greater stability in the British economy; a much stronger economy; more jobs; lower inflation; lower interest rates and a rise in prosperity. The Prime Minister would continue to take the right long term decisions for the country.
Asked if the Prime Minister regretted letting the cost of housing get so high, the PMS said that the Prime Minister completely stood by decisions that had been made in relation to the inflation target and he had always said that he stood by decisions taken by the Bank of England.
Asked if the Government would be willing to go to court if the Police did strike, the PMS said that we were not at that point yet but that the Home Secretary had made clear that we had a responsibility to ensure that pay settlements were affordable and consistent with Government pay policy across the board.
Put that the Police said they were an exception to the rule as they did not have the right to strike and asked if the Government thought their case was exceptional in that sense, the PMS said that the Government's position was to ensure that public sector pay settlements were consistent across the board and the Police had seen some substantial increases in pay over the last 10 years, as the Home Secretary had pointed out yesterday.
Asked if there would be cameras at the signing of the EU Reform Treaty, the PMS replied that, as we had made clear throughout, there would be no ambiguity about whether or not the Prime Minister had signed the treaty and he had no difficulty with being photographed or filmed. The PMS went on to say that the Prime Minster considered the fact that he was signing the treaty three hours after the other leaders to be a complete fuss about nothing. The Prime Minister had a responsibility to both Parliament and the European Union and he took both those responsibilities very seriously and we had found a way of meeting our commitments to both.
Asked if we had ever asked the Liaison Committee to reschedule to another day, the PMS replied that he had always resisted the temptation to get into the details of exactly what was said to who and when, but we were very clear that the date of the Liaison Committee was agreed some time before the date of the signing event in Lisbon was put to us and we made every effort to ensure that we could move the timing of the Liaison Committee to accommodate both events. In the end we were successful in moving the timing of the Liaison Committee forward by one hour.
Asked what the Prime Minister thought about what the Germans were proposing regarding the European flag and anthem and whether or not Britain would sign that declaration, the PMS replied that this declaration was separate from the treaty so there was no question of the treaty being reopened in any way or this declaration having any legal status or being in any way binding; this was a declaration, as we understood, that would be signed by a number of member states, certainly not all member states, and would not be signed by Britain.
Asked why it would not be signed by Britain as all it said was that we accepted there was a European flag and anthem, the PMS replied that we did not think it was necessary to sign a declaration in order to make that point. Our existing position was as had been laid down in various treaties over the years; we were not convinced that it was necessary to sign a new declaration in relation to that. We thought that the focus over the next few days on Europe should not be about institutional matters, which had preoccupied much of Europe's time in recent years. We should be focusing on issues that mattered to real people in Europe and where Europe could make a real difference to its businesses and individuals. We wanted to see the focus on how Europe responded to globalisation, climate change and foreign policy challenges, not to enter into a lengthy discussion about flags and anthems.
Asked what we saw as the main business in Brussels, the PMS replied that the main business would be primarily around the globalisation agenda and how that would be taken forward. We would also anticipate some discussion on some of the wider foreign policy issues, in particular Kosovo and Iran.