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Intelligence

Number 10 Downing Street

PM press conference - 26 February

The Prime Minister has set up an international commission to undertake a comprehensive assessment of the situation in Africa.

Mr Blair began though by expressing his condolences to the people of Macedonia following the death of their President.

Read a transcript of the press conference in full below.

PRIME MINISTER

Good afternoon everyone.  Now there are three topics I'm going to talk about right at the very outset, two of which I intended to talk about, one of which I suspect you are going to question me about afterwards.  I hope you understand that I do actually want to talk about these two prearranged topics as well, and want to say something at the beginning and I understand obviously you will decide whatever questions you want to ask.  And incidentally before I get on to these three matters, can I just express on behalf of the British people our deepest condolences to the people of Macedonia over the tragic death of their President.

Now, the first announcement is in respect of Africa.  Africa is the only continent to have grown poorer in the past 25 years, its share of world trade has halved in the generation, and it receives less than 1% of direct foreign investment, 44 million children do not go to school, millions as you know die through famine, or disease, or conflict, and Africa risks being left even further behind.  That's why in the context of our G8 Presidency in the year 2005 I have decided with others to form a Commission for Africa to take a fresh look at Africa's past, present and future.  It will be a comprehensive assessment of the situation in Africa and policies towards Africa.  What has worked, what has not worked, and what more can and should be done.  I will ask the Commission to submit the report by next Spring. 

I envisage it covering the following themes:  economic issues, education, conflict resolution, health, the environment, HIV Aids, governance and culture.  The Commissioners will be politicians and opinion-formers drawn from developed countries and from Africa.  I'm pleased to say that Prime Minister Meles of Ethiopia, Trevor Manuel the South African Minister of Finance, K Y Amoako, Head of the UN Economic Commission for Africa, have all agreed to serve, as has Sir Bob Geldof, the representative of the United States Senator Nancy Kassebaum-Baker, Michel Camdessus has agreed to serve on behalf of France, the personal representative of President Chirac on Africa.  Gordon Brown and Hilary Benn are already confirmed as commissioners, and others will be confirmed in due course.  I will chair the meetings of the Commission, and I expect each Commissioner to consult widely, with expert thinkers, civil society and the public on this issue.

I think it is necessary to do this now because we realise and appreciate that the Millennium development goals that we have to reach by 2015 are going to be difficult to reach, but nonetheless I think it is essential that we try to do so.   Because the UK holds the Presidency in 2005 and the US the Presidency of the G8 in 2004, Africa will be a priority for both Presidencies and I will obviously consult and work closely with President through his G8 Presidency leading up to ours.  And it is 20 years, after all, since Live Aid gave that incredible mobilisation of public support to do something about the tragedy in Africa.  So I hope very much that the Commission will cover these issues, will come up with specific solutions, and moreover specific solutions in relation to development, in relation to conflict resolution, in relation to governance, in relation to economic questions that allow us to then gather international support behind the Commission's recommendations.  I have said on many occasions that I believe Africa is the scar on the conscience of the world, and I think it is right that we continue to treat this as an absolute priority over the coming years.

The second thing I was going to talk about this morning was to say to you, as you may know already, that further powers from the Anti-Social Behaviour Act are coming into force in this country and those will allow for new measures on parenting contracts, parenting orders, fixed penalty notices for truancy and they are part of an agenda of rights and responsibilities in order to make sure that we improve attendance in our schools, and make it quite clear that truancy will be acted severely upon.  And of course there remains the provision for parents who refuse to get their children to school, and whose children are persistently truanting, and whose parents are responsible for that, it remains in force the penalties for that misconduct up to 2,500 fine or 3 months imprisonment.  So those measures will give us a further boost to the action that we are taking on anti-social behaviour and particularly on truancy. 

Now I obviously will say a word or two also about both what happened yesterday in respect of the Gun case, and about remarks that have been made this morning.  I am going to say to you right at the very beginning that I cannot comment on individual court cases or about intelligence matters, but I will say this to you.  Our security services in this country exist for a reason as they always have done, and that is to protect Britain, to protect this country.  And in an era of global terrorism, where we know there are highly dangerous and repressive states out there developing weapons that could do enormous damage to the stability of the world, their work is even more necessary than ever before.  That is why we and previous governments have never commented on intelligence except to say that this country always acts in accordance with domestic and international law.  It is why we have an Intelligence Commissioner, a retired senior Judge, to scrutinise the work of the agencies.  It is why I, like previous Prime Ministers, am not going to talk openly about the work of the security services or their operations.  To do so would put at risk the security of this country, and I will simply not let that happen.  And whether intentionally or not, those who do attack the work that our security services are doing undermine the essential security of this country.  It is wrong, and it should not happen.  It is as simple as that.

Now, so I've given you three topics to talk about.   Come on Andrew.  Surprise me!

QUESTION

Well, let's pick up on that last one then since you invite us to.  What is your general attitude to surveillance or bugging of friendly countries or United Nations officials?  Do you accept to do that would be against the Vienna Convention? 

PRIME MINISTER

I'm not going to comment on the work that our security services do.  No Prime Minister has done that.  I'm not going to comment on it.  Do not take that as an indication that the allegations that were made by Clare Short this morning are true.  Simply understand, I am not going to comment on the operations of our security services.  But I do say this, we act in accordance with domestic and international law, and we act in the best interests of this country, and our security services are a vital part of the protection of this country, so I am not going to comment on their operations, not directly, not indirectly.  That should not be taken, as I say, as any indication about the truth of any particular allegations and I think the fact that those allegations were made I think is deeply irresponsible.

QUESTION

You would regard the Vienna Convention as part of the fabric of international law, by which you would abide?

PRIME MINISTER

I recognise all the Conventions to which we are signatories as Conventions we have to abide by.  And we also have a situation where the intelligence agencies in this country abide by our own law, and where we have specific scrutiny of those intelligence agencies and services.  We have it through the Commissioner, who is a senior retired Judge, we have it through the Intelligence and Security Committee, which is an All-Party Committee made up of Members of Parliament, and Members of the House of Lords, and we would not do anything that is in breach of our international obligations.  But I hope you understand, I hope the country understands, and I want to say this in respect also of the case yesterday which I know you will probably ask me about as well.  It is very tempting to see people who want to talk about the work of our security services as so-called whistle-blowers or people simply in favour of open information.  But I tell you, our security services, particularly today, particularly with global terrorism as it is, perform an absolutely vital task on behalf of this country, many of their people work in circumstances of very grave danger, and it really is the height of irresponsibility to expose them to this type of public questioning and scrutiny in a way that can do absolutely no good to the security of this country.

QUESTION

It must be said that what this was about wasn't to do with terrorism, it was to do with international politics at the United Nations.

PRIME MINISTER

I'm sure it might be said all sorts of things, and I don't doubt, as I say, that people want to draw me into talking about security operations, or what may or may not have happened.  But the work that our security services do, they do for the protection of this country.  Now as I say, I am in the same position as every single Prime Minister that has ever answered questions on these issues.  It isn't right that we go into operational work, or start confirming or denying  particular allegations that are made.  It is right however that we do point out to the country why it is necessary to have our security services, and why it is necessary to let them operate in the way that they do.  Now they are then subject to controls and accountability that we have established over a long period of time, and they remain subject to those controls and accountability.  But it is really ...... well, I have already said what I have said about that behaviour.

QUESTION

Isn't the charge of bugging the office of the Secretary-General of the United Nations so serious that the public, and indeed he, deserves a denial if you can give one, or you to confess, if that is indeed what's necessary.

PRIME MINISTER

No, it doesn't entitle people to that, because if I do this in respect of this allegation, how on earth am I going to say in respect of any allegation that is made, and I repeat, do not take what I have just said as an indication that the allegation is true, but once you start answering questions about the operation of your security services, and I don't know any President or Prime Minister round the world who would do so incidentally, once you start that, there is no line that you can draw, and it would be quite wrong for me to do so, and I have said already deeply irresponsible for people to have done so as was happening this morning. 

QUESTION

Won't some people conclude that you are hiding behind the cloak of national security, in order to protect in the end what is your political reputation?

PRIME MINISTER

Absolutely.  I have got absolutely no doubt that the conspiracy theorists will be out there saying it is all some terrible plot, and saying what they have been saying all the way through, because it is the case right from the very beginning in respect of Iraq that some people cannot understand it is possible to have a legitimate disagreement about whether it was right to go to war or not.  Now, I happen to believe it was right.  Others believe that it was wrong, and they hold those views deeply and sincerely, as I hold mine.  It is not necessary to have this disagreement in the context of allegations of conspiracy, wrongdoing, misconduct, lying.  You can simply take it that there is a disagreement.  So I have no doubt at all, Mick, that people will be making those allegations, and what I have discovered over a considerable people of time is, whatever I say they will make them.

QUESTION

Could you clarify one thing, because I think everybody is now rushing to the legal textbooks.  What do you understand to be the legal constraints on governments about what they can and cannot intercept?  Surely the public at least have a right to know the framework within which you believe you operate.

PRIME MINISTER

Well, the framework is one that is then overseen by the Intelligence Commissioner, and as I say obviously it is scrutinised by the work of the Intelligence and Security Committee.  I'm not going through all the parts that are done but the reason why our security services do things is in order to protect the security of this country.  I'm not hiding behind that.  That is the fact of what they do, and the danger is if you end up in the situation where people start making allegations about particular operations in respect, say, of this allegation about bugging Kofi Annan or could be bugging anybody else, the moment I start answering those questions, you can't stop.  That's a discussion that could go on literally until the entire work of our security services is turned upside down.  As I say, that is not to say particular allegations are true, and it is exactly why because people know really, and I think you know, I cannot get into details about any operations or start confirming or denying particular allegations.  It's precisely because people know that that it is so irresponsible and so actually threatening to the proper security of this country for people to begin that debate.

QUESTION

Can you tell me if it was legal?

PRIME MINISTER

I've already said we act in accordance with domestic and international law.

QUESTION

Just a few factual points.  We have really a question of trust here, because there is a potential contradiction between the clear assertion from Kofi Annan's office that it would be illegal to bug him under international law, and your clear statement that the security services do nothing illegal under international law .....

PRIME MINISTER

But let me just stop you right there, because what you are doing is getting into a situation where you are saying that I have admitted that this particular allegation is correct effectively.

QUESTION

Inaudible

PRIME MINISTER

Well, I think you were trying to imply that.

QUESTION

No, what I'm saying is you are denying it, because he is saying that it would illegal under international law.  You accept that presumably, that's what the Secretary-General says.  You've gone on to say the intelligence services have done nothing illegal, so we can take that as a categorical denial can we?

PRIME MINISTER

This is exactly the game that you guys want to play, and you realise why I can't play it.  So, carry on playing it, but you know why I can't play it.

QUESTION

Well, OK if you are not going to answer that question, I do want to ask you this.  Are you as Prime Minister a signatory along with your Cabinet colleagues to the Official Secrets Act? 

PRIME MINISTER

Well, of course we all have to abide the Official Secrets Act ...

QUESTION

Therefore, would you support a prosecution of Clare Short?

PRIME MINISTER

Well, as you know I don't - indeed when we get on to discussing the other thing that happened yesterday, I can assure you I don't deal with who is prosecuted and who is not  prosecuted under the Official Secrets Act.  I will say however that I really do regard what Clare Short has said this morning as totally irresponsible and entirely consistent.

QUESTION

On that point, Prime Minister, you made it quite clear you regard it as very irresponsible.  There's a difficulty here, isn't there?  If the security services were doing something that was improper, underhand that people might disapprove of, would it still be wrong to expose that?  Are you saying that would be irresponsible?

PRIME MINISTER

The security services know perfectly well the legal framework within which they have to exist, and as I say there are measures of accountability.  You can go round this course many, many times.  You come back to the same point.  When people put to you specific allegations, it is why it is so irresponsible to make them, they know I'm in the position where it is the practice that I must hold to that you can't confirm or deny them, and then of course you will get endless speculation about why certain things are done.  It is like the dropping of the case yesterday.  I read it everywhere it is because of the worries about the Attorney-General's legal advice.  My understanding is that it is nothing absolutely whatever to do with that, but you are not going to stop people speculating on it, and the point about the security services and the work they do is that of course it has got to be lawful and they are then scrutinised afterwards on it, but it is also important that operationally it remains entirely secret, not open to public discussion or debate.  There is no other security service in the world that would have such an open debate about it, and it isn't sensible, and I simply say to you because I think there will be one part of the media - for reasons that I totally understand I'm not making a criticism actually in this particular instance - who will be running after this and saying does this really mean that he confirms it or denies it.  Does it really mean that actually this was going on, and what is the legal situation.  Right, there will be that element of this debate.  There will be another element of this debate, which will be large parts of the public out there saying what on earth are we doing having a situation where people are talking openly about the work of our security services in a situation where this country is, as other countries are, under the threat of terrorism, and when we have just been through an immensely difficult international situation in which our troops are engaged in conflict.  Well, I'm with them.

QUESTION:

... doesn't share your ability to communicate as clearly, so on the law can you explain why the case was dropped.  He did give a reason but it was impenetrable to most of us.

PRIME MINISTER:

I can only go on what he himself has said in the House of Lords, because I didn't play a part in the discontinuance of the prosecution, but it seems to me pretty obvious that it was to do with the interplay between evidential issues and the legal framework, and he is not going to go into any greater detail on that. But it isn't to do with some issue to do with the publication of his legal advice, and they have made that absolutely clear.  So again you have got to realise that we are not going to get into a situation where the Attorney General is going to start giving all the detailed legal reasons for it, but my understanding certainly, and as I say it is just my understanding from what has been said on it, is that it is the interplay actually between on the particular facts of the case, the evidence and the law, not simply the evidence but the evidence and the law.

QUESTION:

You have said that it was deeply irresponsible of people to do these things, to make these allegations, but doesn't the fact that this case has collapsed, and the fact that at the moment we don't know of any moves against Clare Short make a mockery of the Official Secrets Act.  Are you going to now look at changing the Act in the light of the fact  you can't get a prosecution when someone has actually admitted what apparently is a breach of it?

PRIME MINISTER:

There are no doubt all sorts of questions that can be gone into once we look at what has actually happened in terms of not just the collapse of this prosecution, but the way that the law works in respect of previous cases that there have also been prosecutions under the Official Secrets Act.  But I can't really go beyond saying that in relation to the individual case, I can only refer you to what was said.  But I am not in a position to say today - and don't take this as I am going to say it at a later time - but I am not in a position today to start speculating on changes to the Official Secrets Act.  The one thing I do have to say, and I merely say this as my reaction to the events of the last 24 hours, is that we are going to be in a very dangerous situation as a country if people feel they can simply spill out secrets or details of security operations, whether false or true actually, and get away with it.  I think there is a serious issue that we need to consider here, but exactly what the answer is at this moment in time, I don't know.

QUESTION

The fact remains that it is an unsolved question as to why the British people are denied the right to know the legal advice given by the Attorney General for going to war.  The attentions issue one understands, but legal advice is much more curious, so my first question remains why won't you tell people what legal advice the Attorney General gave for going to war?

PRIME MINISTER:

Sorry Jon, we have told you the legal advice.  We have said that the Attorney General said it was lawful, he set out in a parliamentary answer on 17 March why he thought it was lawful.

QUESTION:

Inaudible.

PRIME MINISTER:

It is there as a parliamentary answer, I can give you a copy of it afterwards.

QUESTION:

Is it the whole of what he advised you?

PRIME MINISTER:

No, we are not going to disclose the whole of his advice because we never do, governments never do disclose the Attorney General's advice in that way.

QUESTION:

Why?

PRIME MINISTER:

Because the Attorney General's advice is private to government, but the effect of his advice is set out in the parliamentary answer, and unless you are actually suggesting to me, and this is apparently I think the suggestion of some people, that somehow the Attorney General's advice was other than what he set out in the parliamentary answer, then I don't know what the point is really.

QUESTION:

Well that takes me to the second prong of the question, because the paperwork in the case which failed yesterday is said by those who have seen it, or who have been very close to it, to reveal that the Attorney General counselled against the legality of the war throughout 2002 and only gave you legal justification in the month of January 2003.

PRIME MINISTER:

Jon, I can't comment on the nature of the advice the Attorney General has given to us, other than to say to you he gave us clear and specific advice about the legality of the war, for the reasons set out in the parliamentary answer on 17 November, and actually I looked at that again this morning, since I thought I might be asked on it, and if you look at it it is actually to do with the UN resolutions going back prior, not just to Resolution 1441 in November 2002, but also going back to prior UN resolutions. That is the basis of his advice.

QUESTION:

But did his advice change.  Do you accept that he was unable to counsel legality?

PRIME MINISTER:

It is not a question of his advice changing.  No, I am sorry, the opposite is true.  He counselled specifically that the war was lawful, otherwise we could not have gone to war.  So it is absolutely clear what his advice is, and the point that I am making to you is that it is not merely clear what his advice was, but it was based on not just Resolution 1441, but previous UN resolutions. But I want to make this further point to you about the legality of the war.  A lot of people, including I think your own programme fairly significantly, relied on what David Kay has said. David Kay made it quite clear that in his view there was ample evidence already of material breaches of Resolution 1441, never mind resolutions that were passed earlier by the UN.  So in respect of the legality of the war, we went to war to enforce UN resolutions. Breaches of those UN resolutions have already been determined by the interim report of the Iraq Survey Group.  So this issue to do with the legality of the war is just another way of trying to re-fight what in the end I am afraid was a political decision.

QUESTION:

Therefore you do deny that as late as December 2002 the Attorney General told you you could not go to war without a second resolution?

PRIME MINISTER:

I absolutely deny that we did anything other than conform with his advice throughout.

QUESTION:

That is not what I asked.

PRIME MINISTER:

I know, but I am not getting in, and do not take this as an admission of what you have just been putting to me, I am not getting into giving a running commentary on all the things and discussions with the Attorney General throughout the period.  What I am saying to you is that there was never any question of us being able to go to war without the Attorney General's advice being clear, that advice was clear, it was clear throughout and we acted upon it.  If you go back though and look at the basis of his advice, you will see why the assumption behind your question is obviously wrong.  And the other point that I am making to you, which I repeat again, is that for this war, even in retrospect, to be lawful, it requires breaches of the UN resolutions.  Already what the Iraq Survey Group has done has uncovered that, so even if there were issues to do with the legality of the war, if what David Kay is saying is right, if what the Iraq Survey Group is saying is right, and there were facilities and laboratories and documents that were not disclosed to the UN that should have been, then that is the clearest possible breach, not just of earlier UN resolutions but specifically of UN resolution 1441.  And that is why I say to you that in the end all these things, everything that is happening in this debate is a cover for people wanting to have a debate about the rightness or wrongness of the conflict, and that is actually the debate we should have and that is a perfectly sensible debate.  But it is not a debate actually about the law, about conspiracies, about security services, it is actually a debate about was it right to remove Saddam Hussein in the way you did, or should you have waited and given the inspectors more time? That is actually the heart of this debate and it would be sensible to have it on that basis.

QUESTION

Yesterday David Trimble accused your government of rank moral cowardice in not taking action against Sinn Fein over last week's IRA kidnapping in Belfast.  Now you replied that you would take action if the police indicated to you that mainstream IRA were involved.  The first thing is what action will you take, and the second thing is do you agree with the Irish Fienna Gail opposition leader, Enda Kenny, who yesterday in the Doyle said that it is now time to stop pandering to the IRA and their political representatives?

PRIME MINISTER:

I don't believe we are pandering to the IRA in the sense that the reason why you don't have institutions up and running in Northern Ireland, devolved institutions, is precisely because we can't be sure of the commitment to exclusively peaceful means.  It is like when people say to me in Northern Ireland well you promised Sinn Fein wouldn't be part of the Executive if the IRA were continuing its activity, well I say to them well I kept that promise, they are not part of the Executive, that is the reason why we have not been able to make progress. And the action that we take is really in respect of that process. What they have got to understand, what Sinn Fein have got to understand, and I set this out in the Acts of Completion speech in October 2002, unless they are prepared to commit to exclusively peaceful means and carry out that commitment faithfully, they can't be part of the government of Northern Ireland, they can't be part of the process because other parties, perfectly understandably and rightly, say we all have to abide by the same rules, and we won't get the devolved institutions up and running again in Northern Ireland until the violence ceases.  Now I understand the pressures that come upon the Republicans in their own communities, I want to say this to you, I understand the pressures from Loyalists, I understand the pressures that sometimes come about because of the nature and difficulties of policing in some of these areas, and I understand the pressures that come on the IRA in trying to handle what is a difficult situation of change within their own movement. But they have got to understand they cannot conduct these appalling vicious attacks on people, they cannot conduct the targeting, the training of people to carry out acts of terrorism, it has just all got to stop and their choice is perfectly simple.

QUESTION:

So if Hugh Orde tells you, to use your words, that mainstream IRA were involved in this kidnapping, David Trimble is threatening to walk out of this process next Monday, what action will you actually take against Sinn Fein. 

PRIME MINISTER:

The action is to say, there is a reference incidentally that we should make to the Monitoring Commission as well, because that will be an important aspect of the first report that they give, but the action is perfectly simple. We are not going to be able to allow people to participate in the democratic process unless they abide by the rules of democracy. Now that is the action in the end. And what people have got to understand in Northern Ireland is that we still have the basis for a proper agreement.  There is no doubt at all the vast majority of people in Northern Ireland want to make this thing work, they want the Republicans to commit to peace, they want the Unionists to commit to power-sharing and they want everyone then to get on with the job.  Now what the Unionists have done effectively, even with the DUP, have said is well in principle we are prepared to share power provided there is a commitment to exclusively peaceful means. What Sinn Fein have got to do now is to make sure that that commitment is there on behalf of the paramilitary organisation to which they are linked, and it is as simple as that really and ultimately people are going to have to make up their minds.

QUESTION

Just to return to the implications of the Gun case, what the Attorney General said in his statement was that the prosecution didn't feel that they could offer evidence against the defence of necessity.  Now the defence of necessity is that you can argue that you committed a crime to avoid imminent peril of danger to life, or serious injury to himself, or towards individuals for whom he reasonably regarded himself as responsible.  Now doesn't that mean that you are never going to be able to prosecute people under the Official Secrets Act when there is any kind of prospect of war if it is in that case individuals towards which people regard themselves as being responsible?

PRIME MINISTER:

I can't comment on that aspect of the law because I am not qualified to do so

QUESTION:

But you are a lawyer.

PRIME MINISTER:

Thank you, but it is not a great expertise that I have in this area. And the point is that in the end the decision is taken by Counsel in the case. And remember, as I think the Attorney General explained, the prosecution is mounted and in a sense the political public interest issues are taken into account then, and so the case was proceeding.  Now my understanding, but it is my understanding, as I say I played no part in the discontinuance of the prosecution, my understanding is it is to do with their belief that they could not secure a conviction based on legal and technical reasons.  Now I have not heard anything more than what has already been said on that. As to whether there is some lacuna in the law, I don't know, that is something obviously that can be studied at a later time. But what isn't true to say, if there had been some great political reason for not mounting this case it would have presumably been taken at the very beginning, not half way through it.

QUESTION:

The Attorney General also consulted the Foreign Office.

PRIME MINISTER:

We are going into an interview situation.

QUESTION:

You gave them two questions.

PRIME MINISTER:

Martha, I wasn't going to say I wasn't going to allow you to ask another question, I was just going to say after you do I think we have got to take a question each, because there are other people.

QUESTION:

The Attorney General consulted the Foreign Secretary before he gave consent for the case to go ahead. Did he consult the Foreign Secretary over the collapse of the case?

PRIME MINISTER:

I just spoke briefly to the Foreign Secretary this morning, I think he did speak to the Foreign Secretary about it, because the Foreign Secretary of course is the Minister who has got responsibility for the GCHQ, but the Foreign Secretary did not, like I didn't, play any role in the discontinuance of the prosecution. So I think they did have two conversations about it, as they properly should because he after all is the Minister responsible for the GCHQ, but the decision was taken by the Counsel on evidential and legal grounds and were not taken for other reasons.  Again I just simply say, because the usual sort of conspiracy theories roll around, I don't think the Attorney General would be saying that, or Counsel would be saying that if it wasn't true.

QUESTION

Can you at least say whether you regard Kofi Annan as the kind of guy who is honest with you? Do you trust him?  Surely he is not the kind of guy we ought to be bugging if he is saying things behind your back.

PRIME MINISTER:

I have huge responsibility for these issues, OK, within the British government, but I also have huge respect for Kofi Annan.  He is a personal friend as well as someone for whom I have the greatest political respect.  We work extremely well with the UN. And I might just point this out as well, that the reason actually that Clare Short resigned from the government was not about the decision to go to war, because actually she voted for the decision to go to war, it was over the failure of the British government to involve the UN properly in the aftermath of the political process in Iraq.  Actually the UN today is intimately involved in that political process.

QUESTION

Just to follow up on the answer just given to Fraser about Kofi Annan, and what you have said about the legality of the way the Security Services in this country act, would it be fair to say you would deplore any activity by a foreign Security Service to bug the United Nations and your great friend Kofi Annan?

PRIME MINISTER:

Yes, it is fair to say that I would expect all international colleagues in countries to abide by the law in the way that we do.

QUESTION:

You have branded Clare Short's behaviour today as totally irresponsible and entirely consistent.  Have you only just woken up to the nature of Clare Short, whom you have known for a long time, and what does it say about your own judgment that you could allow someone like that in the Cabinet and be privy to all this information for so long?

PRIME MINISTER:

I certainly think that is a pretty good question.  Look, to be fair she did a good job actually as International Development Secretary and I am sorry that she has said the things that she has said this morning. But she must know, and I think everyone knows, you can't have a situation where people start making allegations like this about our Security Services, it is completely irresponsible.  She knows that. And I do say this to you because it is important, because I think that a lot of people in the country will be thinking this, and it is certainly what I feel very strongly, this is a dangerous time for this country and for the world, we need our Security Services, we need these people who risk their lives for us, to feel confident of the strong political support and backing right across the political spectrum for what they do, and I give them that strong backing.  I think they do a fantastic job and I really regret the way they have been dragged through the mud over the past few months.  It is totally unfair to them, they are fantastic people, they do a job of patriotism on behalf of this country and people who put them in the firing line like this, I really do not have a great deal of respect for.

QUESTION:

What is the UK position on the EU/Syrian Partnership Agreement, and is it true that your government have asked the EU to use the Syrian WMD programme as a condition Damascus should actually dismantle before signing up the agreement?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well it is more to do I think with the fact that we are concerned that Syria does not pose a danger to the region or the wider world, either through sponsoring terrorism or through WMD programmes. Actually we support the concept of an EU/Syria agreement.  It is not conditionality quite in the sense that you are talking about it, but we do need to make sure that Syria is on the right path in relation to these things. But as you know, I have actually tried to reach out to Syria and tried to say that the hand of partnership is there for you provided you are prepared to abide by what are proper rules of international conduct, and I don't think I need to say more about it than that.

QUESTION:

In some of your answers there is a danger that you are setting yourself up above the law, and I was wondering if you could give an assurance that if either the Butler inquiry or the ISC wish to inquire into these issues that Clare Short has raised, they will be entitled to do so?

PRIME MINISTER:

I am sure that we will carry on co-operating with the committee, and the Butler Inquiry in whatever way they see fit, and the reason I say to you that I am confident we always abide by domestic and international law is that I am confident we do, because there is a scrutiny process that the people who work in the services have to go through.

QUESTION

You told us today of your fears that this country would be in a very dangerous situation if people felt they could leak with impunity. But after the collapse of the Katherine Gun case yesterday, isn't GCHQ just going to leak like a sieve in future? And do you regret appointing Clare Short to your Cabinet?

PRIME MINISTER:

I think I have answered the latter question already, and I do say, whatever my disagreement over what she has done today, she did actually do a good job as Development Secretary and there are many countries around the world with cause to be grateful to her for that.  It is just a pity she has done what she has done today because I think it is wrong.  In respect of the first point, no I think people in GCHQ will know very, very well what is expected of them, and the Attorney General indicated very clearly it was on the particular facts of this case that the prosecution was dropped. But nobody should be in any doubt that we will apply the full rigour of the law to the greatest extent that we can do so, should people choose to breach the official secrets of the country and therefore breach the interests of the country frankly.

QUESTION:

With regard to Libya, the Libyan Prime Minister announced the day before yesterday that Libya is not responsible for either of the two incidents. Are you going ahead with lifting the sanctions and do you believe in this theory?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well I was grateful yesterday for the assurances that were given by the Libyan Foreign Minister to Jack Straw that repeated what Libya has said in the past on both these issues and we will continue in that vain. And I think actually, to be fair to the Libyan Prime Minister, I was obviously very concerned to read of his comments, but I think when you read the actual transcript of the interview it is not entirely clear precisely that he meant what he was taken as meaning. But any lack of clarity has now been summed up very clearly, or lack of clarity has been cleared by what the Libyan Foreign Minister has said, and it is important obviously Libya does accept the full responsibilities it has already indicated.

QUESTION

Do you agree that what happened three weeks ago in Morecambe Bay is anything but a laughing matter, and what is your opinion of Ann Winterton's comments, joking at the expense of those who lost their lives there?

PRIME MINISTER:

I have already indicated I have the deepest sympathy for the victims of that tragedy and for their families and for the local community as well and I really have nothing to say about the comments of Ann Winterton.  I have no knowledge about them other than what I have read.

QUESTION

As a Labour MP since 1983 you have known the heartache of three defeats at the polls and the joy of two victories.  On Sunday Middlesborough, who have lost three cup finals in the '90s, take on Bolton in the Carling Cup Final.  Even as a Newcastle supporter, can you find it in your heart to wish them well?

PRIME MINISTER:

Jerry, I hope it is a very good game, and I am also acutely aware there will be many people supporting Bolton too, but yes of course I hope Middlesborough do well, I think they have had an exceptionally good run and good luck to them.  That is not in any sense to say I am ...  Thank you very much for that Jerry.

QUESTION:

Your government is finally returning to the subject of Lords reform this week and there has been this interesting interim solution that we have had.  How credible do you think the House of Lords is in its current form and how can an unelected second chamber really ever be taken seriously as part of a democracy?

PRIME MINISTER:

I have indicated that on the issue of whether the second chamber should be elected or not, MPs should have a free vote on it.  I personally am not in favour, certainly not in favour of a partially elected or hybrid chamber, I don't think it would work.  I think the key thing you have got to ask about the House of Lords is what do you want it to do? Because if you don't want it to replicate the House of Commons and you don't want it to be in conflict with the House of Commons, you want it to be a revising chamber, and I think there is some case for having a House of Lords that has people drawn from broader ranks than simply those that have spent their whole life in politics, and in particular I think it is very difficult to see how you could have a hybrid House of Lords, 50% or 60% elected, but that is my own view on it. And the reason I have indicated that there should be a free vote on this issue is because I think it is important that it is in the end for MPs to decide.

QUESTION:

... credible now.

PRIME MINISTER:

Well I think it is a darned sight more credible than it was given we have got rid of the Hereditary Peers, or many of them, a large proportion of them.  I do simply say to you that I have always thought this, that the idea you have a House of Lords which was, until we came to office, literally dominated by Hereditary Peers is surely an eccentricity even beyond our traditions.  And the fact is that it was an outrage that people should be in the House of Lords, able to legislate, on the basis of the hereditary principle and it could never have been right.  So I think here, yes I think it is more democratic today, of course it is, because that element has been removed, but I think there are other changes that can happen. And remember I am the first Prime Minister that has actually given up sole patronage to appoint people into the House of Lords.

QUESTION

Bearing in mind everything you have said this morning about the way that the lives of our security officers, the security of the nation has been put at risk by the acts of two people, do you not think that the public will be mystified that no exemplary action is going to be taken against either of them as far as we can see from your words this morning?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well in respect of the first, well in respect of anyone actually, the fact is it is not for me to decide who is prosecuted and who is not prosecuted and we have a very clear differentiation between the Executive and those who take responsibility for prosecuting people in this country.  But if I could respond to the general point, which is why as I say we have to look very carefully at some of the lessons that need to be learned from this, it cannot be right that people who give away information, or make utterly irresponsible claims or statements or revelations about our Security Services do so in the way that the last 24 hours has revealed, because otherwise the security of this country will be put at risk.

QUESTION:

Inaudible.

PRIME MINISTER:

As I say, that is exactly why we have to examine what has happened  and see what we need to do as a result of it. But let me say to you, as I was saying earlier, there will be some people who will be no doubt rejoicing that people are talking about security issues in this way, or revealing secrets, there will be a lot of people in the public who will be absolutely outraged, and rightly so, about it.

QUESTION

How satisfied are you with the transparency of the process for the awarding of contracts in the rebuilding of Iraq?  Do you believe that a level playing field exists, and if so why are British companies winning so few of those contracts?

PRIME MINISTER:

I don't think they are winning so few of them actually.  As far as I am concerned the process is fine, I think British companies have got a perfectly fair and level playing field to play on, and people often confuse two quite separate things incidentally here:  one is contracts given by the United States in respect of USAID, which obviously they have certain rules about, and the other are contracts let by the Iraqi Governing Council. But in respect of both, as far as I am aware, the process is perfectly transparent, but they are different obviously.  In one case the Iraqis are using Iraqi money, in the other case it is actually United States money.

QUESTION

You are facing a revolt from pensioners at the moment over council tax. In Devon there are grannies saying they will go to jail rather than pay, and they have heard what you have said about capping and about extra council funding, but it is not working and they are blaming you, so what would you say to them?

PRIME MINISTER:

I would simply say to them that all I can do in central government, local councils set the council tax, I don't set it from central government.  That is a statement of fact. What I do set is the amount of central government grant to local authorities. What we have done is ensure that every council in the country, every council, I don't know the last time this happened, it goes back many, many years, every single council in the country has received an above inflation increase in their council tax. So the questions about why in those circumstances councils are continuing to say they might have double digit rises in council tax is a question that has got to be addressed to the councils. And all I can say to you is that if you go round the country now you can see many councils, I am pleased to say a lot of them Labour councils, who are posting increases 5% or under. And I totally understand the problems that pensioners have, and others indeed on low incomes in circumstances where there are very high council tax rises.  We listen to people because of the difficulties that arose from last year, and that is precisely why this year we have provided the extra money. We actually provided all the money the local government association asked us to, and we have also said if necessary we will use capping powers. But it is not ultimately for me, other than I suppose indirectly through the capping process, to set the level of council tax.  So I understand why the councils always want to transfer blame to the central government, but the only issue that really arises for me is have I given them more money from central government, and the answer to that is yes I have.

QUESTION

When was the last time someone in your administration, either an official or Minister, said no to you on an issue of government policy, and why?

PRIME MINISTER:

We have had them all this morning.  No, no, I can't answer that really. I am sure it has happened and I am sure I have said something, but what it is I can't really recall. Anyway we always work by consensus and agreement, as you know.

QUESTION

You have said in the past that you don't want to comment on issues of exchange rates, but can we take it from that that you are content to leave the level of the pound entirely to market forces? And the second question is how high up  your agenda is your own membership in the euro referendum?

PRIME MINISTER:

In relation to the latter, I mean it is just the same as it has been, it is a question of the economic conditions being met.  In relation to the former, no it is not our intention to intervene in the market in relation to the pound in the sense in which you are talking about it, and obviously there have been significant changes in the pound-dollar exchange rate, but I don't think it is sensible for me to comment on them, as Bloomberg News will know from long experience.

QUESTION

In terms of the plan to try and set up a processing centre in Tanzania for the processing of people seeking asylum, would the plan also work the other way to take failed asylum seekers from Britain to Tanzania, and why is that anything but just exporting your problems? And also is the plan modelled in any way on Australia's Pacific solution?

PRIME MINISTER:

No, because we can't do that in the way that Australia has done it. These are simply discussions that we have had with the Tanzanian government about whether you can process people closer to the point of departure as asylum seekers. It could include people who have been failed as asylum seekers here, but only in very, very specific circumstances, for example there is some concern that some people from a country like Tanzania may claim to be for example Somalis in order to gain asylum, there are issues to do with that. But I have got to say, as I said in the House of Commons yesterday, this may form part of a solution, but the blunt reality is it will only be able to affect a very small portion of the people that we process. And the real reason why we have done what we have done on asylum, and this is crucial to understanding the only way of dealing with the asylum issue, and I take several meetings a month on this issue and have done for the past 18 months in order to get it properly under control and sorted out, the only way of us dealing with our asylum problem is to cut the numbers of applications and you only do that by putting the right security in on the French port side and by toughening up the rules, which is what we have done.  And as a result of that we have brought the numbers down considerably, actually the latest numbers are even below those that were announced the other day, we are continuing to make progress on it, and the reason why it is so important to cut the numbers coming in is because the problem of deporting people, that is why you effectively as I understand it mainly stop people before they ever reach your shore, and the reason why it is important to try and prevent people coming in is because once people are in, you can only deport them if there is a country prepared to take them back and document them. People often say to me, and it is a perfectly natural public reaction, once they have failed, why don't you just put them back? And the answer is you can only put them back if there is a country willing to accept them as one of their nationals, and this has been our problem, which is why we have actually increased the number of deportations dramatically actually, by four times in the last few years, but this battle can't be won unless you cut the numbers applying.  But this processing business, it is something that we can do I hope, but it requires obviously other countries' agreement, but it is not a solution to our problem.

QUESTION:

There are still British prisoners at Guantanamo Bay, what negotiations are going on about them, are they still an issue when you are talking to George Bush and are you at all optimistic that they will be coming home with the other British prisoners?

PRIME MINISTER:

Of course we carry on discussing them with the US authorities but I really can't say at this stage exactly what is going to happen. Obviously the criteria for their trial will remain the same, but it is an issue we continue to discuss.

QUESTION:

Can I take you back to Africa, at the beginning of this discussion. One of the original Commissioners on I think it was the Brandt Report, Robert MacNamara, recently said that if Brant had to be updated comprehensively, a full time active politician would be unable to do the job properly.  Now is the scale of the Blair report, if it can be called that, far less ambitious than Brandt, or do you perhaps plan to have more time on your hands in the future?

PRIME MINISTER:

I hope that it is every bit as ambitious, but obviously it is not just simply myself but there are other government Ministers, Gordon and Hilary particularly, who will be involved in this and the other Commissioners will be highly active and we will be serviced obviously by a dedicated team of people. But also we have been through the Nepad process as well, the Africa Partnership, which I think has taken us a certain way, but what we really need to do is to bring some of these key questions to a decision point for the G8 and then the wider world.  But no I think we can handle this perfectly well.

QUESTION:

Is it on the same scale as Brandt, that is what I was asking really?

PRIME MINISTER:

I hope it is, yes, it should be, and that is why we are setting it up now to report back a year from now.

QUESTION:

In view of the recent closed and unfair elections in Iran and the regime's breach of trust of the EU and Britain specifically in relation to its pursuit of the nuclear development programme, is there going to be a change in the British policy of engagement with the regime of the Ayatollah?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well we engage for a reason, to make the world more secure and to try and encourage a process of change in Iran.  In respect of the first, I want to make it very clear to the Iranian authorities there must be complete and total compliance with the International Atomic Energy Authority, there can't be any partial compliance with that.  The demands that they have made have to be met and to be met in full and I don't want there to be any doubt about that. In respect of the second, obviously I would like to see all countries give their people the right to participate in full and free elections, and it is sad that so many of the candidates were disqualified from the recent elections in Iran, and in the end I think what countries around the world realise is that if they embrace democracy, the rule of law and human rights, they don't merely become better places to live, they also become more prosperous places. So our engagement is there for a purpose and the purposes change.

QUESTION:

What are the future plans of Britain for the four southern Iraqi provinces, and particularly Basra?  And how are you going to integrate all these minorities in Iraq into one political system?

PRIME MINISTER:

What we are engaged in now in Iraq is a process of change for the country.  In Basra we are trying to make sure that we build the right infrastructure and the right economy there, but also a political process in which in time Iraqi people take full control of their own affairs, and we do not desire to stay in Iraq any longer than is necessary to do so in order to allow that process to happen. And actually what is happening in Iraq, despite the appalling acts of terrorism, is that the Iraqi people are reasserting their ability and their right to a proper economy and a proper way of life, and even though the political process is difficult for obvious reasons, nonetheless it is making progress and we have got to continue helping them in every single way that we can. But to make it absolutely clear to you, our interests and the interests of the Iraqi people are identical. We both want Iraq to be a stable, democratic, prosperous state with its own sovereignty fully intact, just as ours is here in Britain. That is what we want and we do not need or want to stay a moment longer than to see that achieved, because in the end that is in the interests of everyone.

QUESTION:

A question on Europe. Going back one week the Berlin Summit didn't make some countries very happy, mainly I think my government if I am not wrong. Was it a one-off, was it a way for you to leverage through the economic reform or a way to leverage through the economic reform a new format in terms of relations among the three big European countries?

PRIME MINISTER:

First of all, obviously we have met at three in relation to Iran, we have met at three in relation to European defence, but you are absolutely right in saying that the purpose of meeting was in order to gain greater support for the process of economic reform.  It is quite specifically and absolutely not to try and establish some directoire of self-selecting nations, that is not the way to run Europe. And I know there has been some concern in Italy that perhaps we intended that, we most certainly do not, and I can assure you I have the strongest working relationship with Prime Minister Berlusconi, and I also think incidentally that in extremely difficult circumstances with the European constitution debate in December, Italy actually managed to keep that process alive with very great skill.

QUESTION

On Africa, doesn't everybody know what Africa needs, which is reform of the US and EU farm subsidies, fairer trade negotiations and more effective implementation of the debt programme.  Why do we need a commission to tell us this, and if we do need a commission is the US representative on it of sufficiently high level?

PRIME MINISTER:

I certainly think she is, yes. But in respect of the first, it is not just a question, obviously fair trade and debt are very important, although the details, how we move those forward now in light of what has happened in the WTO and after the experience of the last few years in respect of debt, how we move those forward are important, but I don't agree those are the only two issues.  I think there are big issues in respect of Africa to do with conflict resolution and governance.  You look at what is happening in Zimbabwe at the moment, for example.  So I think that the issues go beyond the two issues that you have mentioned and I think it is sensible to look at all those issues and issues for example about inward investment and business cooperation inside Africa. And the purpose of all these things, of course you are going over ground that is familiar, obviously that is right, but the purpose of all these things is to keep regalvanising the international community to act. What happened on debt was that the international community did get galvanised. What happened on trade unfortunately was that it wasn't galvanised in quite the same way. Now we have got to do that.

QUESTION:

Isn't this just another talking shop with another dust gathering document?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well that is up to us to make sure that it isn't, but the reason why we have done it in the way that we have is so that it is published before the G8 Presidency of Britain in 2005, and therefore we will come to a decision point, and my experience of these things is you are always in an easier and better position to get countries to take action if a report coincides with a specific summit, because people are then there and they have got to take decisions.

QUESTION

The European Commission said last week that Co Durham and Tees Valley, including your own constituency, is likely to qualify for what is currently called Objective One European aid.  500 million is the figure mentioned.  The Commission also made clear that should the budget be capped, as Britain and other countries wish, it is most likely that areas such as Co Durham and Merseyside etc will miss out on that money.  Would you be happy for your patch to miss out on half a billion quid in those circumstances and do you think your constituents would blame you if it did?

PRIME MINISTER:

I think there are two issues that need to be put together in the right way.  One is obviously Objective One, which is good money coming to our region, but the other is the overall amount of money we pay into the EU budget and there will be a negotiation over the interplay between those two things, but we have got to handle it with care and sensitivity. Though I would point out to you that my constituency over the past 7 years has seen a fall in unemployment and a growth in jobs that is actually quite remarkable. But of course if there is Objective One assistance available, we want it, but I am not going to have people use that as a way then of levering in what for both the north east and the rest of the country would be irresponsible rises in the EU budget, so there is a negotiation obviously that is going on there and we will have to watch it very carefully, but I will secure the very best deal I possibly can for my constituents, of course I will.

QUESTION:

Why hasn't your government offered symbolic assistance to the victims of the earthquake in northern Morocco?  And if I may have a second question, do you still believe in the existence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq?

PRIME MINISTER:

In respect of the first, I will have to get you an answer I am afraid from the Department of International Development on that, but I know that in respect of any such natural disasters we always do contribute and help, but I just can't give you the detail on it I am afraid. And secondly, I have throughout believed the intelligence that we were given about Iraq, and I simply say it is important to let the Iraq Survey Group carry on its work and then let's see how we do and where we get to on it.

QUESTION

There is a wide debate in the Middle East, and in Europe and the United States about the need for reform, openness, democracy, and some countries have actually presented plans for that.  Do you intend to present a plan for this reform or is it going to be discussed in the G8 in the United States?

PRIME MINISTER:

I think it will obviously be discussed amongst not just the G8 countries but others over the coming months, and I think it is important that we do everything we can to improve the prospects for democracy, and change and reform, not just in the Middle East but across the world.  I think we also have to recognise that progress on the Palestinian issue would be immensely important, both in itself and as a symbol of western concern for people in the Middle East, and I hope, despite all the difficulties, that progress can be made there. But what is actually happening at the moment is that people are beginning to understand that though, and we have been talking a lot today about the work of our Security Services, although the work of our Security Services, even on occasions military action, is very important in protecting our security, the best form of security ultimately is the spread of values of freedom, democracy, the rule of law and human rights, and the countries that embrace those principles are countries that tend to co-exist better with their neighbours and to treat their own people better.

QUESTION:

There is a view that solutions imposed from outside wouldn't work and countries in the region have expressed this view. What do you say to that?

PRIME MINISTER:

I know very well that is in no part a desire of the Americans to impose solutions on those countries, but it is a perfectly sensible thing for them to say there is a process of change and reform happening in the Middle East, we want to encourage that and we want to develop it in a direction insofar as possible that is linked to the values that we actually believe in, and that is important.



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