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United Kingdom
Prime Minister's Official Spokesman
Lobby Briefing
September 24, 2001
11:00 A.M. GMT

Meeting with Select Committees and Parliamentary Committee

The Prime Minister's Official Spokesman (PMOS) advised that the Prime Minister was meeting four Select Committees this morning, namely Defence, Home Affairs, Intelligence and Foreign Affairs. The meeting was scheduled for an hour. He was also due to hold a meeting of the Parliamentary Committee later this afternoon.

Asked what the Prime Minister would say at his meeting with the Select Committees, the PMOS said the Prime Minister would be in both briefing and listening mode. He would want to take the opportunity to brief them on his trip to Washington and his discussions at the European Council. He would also want to update them on where we were, being as open he could be within the constraints in which we were operating. Equally, he would want to hear how they viewed the situation, particularly in light of the wealth of expertise and the number of very senior individuals from the different parties who sat on these Select Committees.

Phonecalls

The PMOS said that the Prime Minister had spoken to Prime Minister Chretien of Canada and Kofi Annan yesterday. His conversation with Mr Annan had primarily been about the humanitarian situation. Both had agreed that this needed to be very carefully monitored and addressed as a priority. The different UN agencies were considering what measures they needed to put in place as a matter of urgency. He reminded journalists that Clare Short had announced a £25m aid package last week.

At some point today, the Prime Minister would speak to Prime Minister Vajpayee of India, as India was a very important country in the region. It was also possible the Prime Minister might make one or two other international calls. Asked if the Prime Minister would be speaking to President Bush today, the PMOS said not as far as he was aware.

Labour Party Conference

Asked the Prime Minister's view as to whether the Party Conference should go ahead this year, the PMOS said that as everyone would acknowledge, we were in a very serious situation. As the Prime Minister had indicated, there was a clear likelihood of military action which would include the involvement of our forces. Obviously that carried a very heavy responsibility for any Prime Minister and Government. In terms of the Party Conference, therefore, the arguments had to be balanced. On the one hand, people were saying that to cancel the Conference would be to give in to terrorism. On the other hand, others were saying that it would be wrong to hold it in the current circumstances. In the Prime Minister's view, Party Conferences were an important part of the national and political calendar. His overwhelming instinct was that it should go ahead in some form. That said, this stance was still being kept under review.

Recall of Parliament

Asked about John Prescott's comment concerning the possibility of a further recall of Parliament, the PMOS said that as the Prime Minister had said, we attached great importance to Parliament, as the seat of our democracy, being kept informed. That was why it had been recalled at the earliest possible opportunity following the atrocity on 11 September. The issue was being kept under constant review. As circumstances developed, careful consideration would continue to be given. No doubt the Prime Minister would want to take soundings today in his meeting with the Select Committees. Asked if he was implying that Parliament would be recalled before its due date and that it was just a matter of when, the PMOS repeated that the issue was being considered carefully. If we were in a position to say anything more then we would.

Questioned as to whether these matters were being discussed actively with the Opposition, the PMOS said that in the same way the Prime Minister would want to ensure the Select Committees were being kept informed, he would have contacts with Party Leaders as well. He would be speaking to Charles Kennedy and Ian Duncan Smith today.

ID Cards/Legislation

Asked the Prime Minister's view on the introduction of ID Cards and whether this was an issue he would discuss with the Opposition, the PMOS said that as David Blunkett had said yesterday, it was important not to get too ahead of ourselves on this matter. Following the events of 11 September, it was clearly very important for all Governments to review their domestic laws and take any necessary measures following the atrocities. Although we had some of the toughest anti-terrorism laws anywhere in the world, it was clear there was still more we could do. That was likely to mean the introduction of separate primary legislation in the coming session. It was also possible that existing Bills currently going through Parliament could be used as vehicles for additional legislation - for example, the Proceeds of Crime Bill which could be used to tackle some of the money laundering aspects of terrorism financing. In terms of ID Cards, as David Blunkett said yesterday, it was important for this to be considered in a cool, measured way. Thought was obviously being given to these issues. However, no decision had been reached at this stage.

Asked about the downside of ID Cards, the PMOS said the arguments had to be weighed up and careful consideration needed to be given to the potential advantages and disadvantages. Asked what freedoms would be lost by making ID Cards compulsory in light of the fact that everyone carried around some form of ID anyway, the PMOS said that debate would be had should we get to that stage. We acknowledged there were a number of different issues in relation to how such cards worked. However, no decision on ID Cards had been made. That said, we understood why people were raising the subject. Put to him that this was something an early recall of Parliament could help to sort out more swiftly, the PMOS said that discussions concerning our domestic laws were currently ongoing within Government in terms of the range of different measures which needed to be put in place. These were focussing, for example, on issues regarding the tightening of laws on money laundering and the question of how we could cut through some of the red tape in relation to extradition proceedings. As the Home Secretary had underlined yesterday, we would give consideration to these issues in a calm, measured way which would take account of the events of two weeks ago and which would look across the board at all the different arguments and some of the practical issues. Asked if this would also take into account the Human Rights Convention, the PMOS said that David Blunkett had acknowledged yesterday that there might be tensions between the Human Rights legislation and the necessary protection of citizens to allow them to go about their business. These issues were being pursued speedily, as you would expect. However, it was right they should be looked at in the appropriate fora within Government and that time should be taken to get them right and for decisions to be reached.

Asked if the Government was also considering laws on incitement in light of some of the anti-US sentiment which had been expressed in this country, the PMOS pointed out that there was a distinction to be made. Some of these people disagreeing with the Government's policy and direction would be making their point democratically and openly. That was fine. People were entitled to express different views. We lived in a democracy and that was one of the foundations underpinning it. It separated us from countries where there was no free speech. However, in terms of what some of the more extreme elements were saying, their comments were being very carefully monitored to ensure they were on the right side of the law. Should they transgress in any way, obviously the appropriate action would be taken. Asked if legislation would be introduced to prevent people calling for a war on the US, the PMOS said that we were looking at a number of different areas in this respect. At this stage we were focussing primarily on issues relating to extradition and terrorism financing. There was a balance to be struck between freedom of expression and incitement and this was something we would be looking at very carefully.

'Military Blueprint' / 'War Aims'

In answer to questions, the PMOS took the opportunity to respond to the BBC and Evening Standard reports which claimed that a blueprint on military discussions was due to be given to the Prime Minister today. The reports had led to some head-scratching in Downing Street. We had maintained close contact and constant links with the US from the outset to make sure we were aware of each other's thinking. Consequently, a number of senior military figures had been going back and forwards to the US, as you would expect. To talk about final blueprints being presented to the Prime Minister in this way was to misunderstand where we were and the nature of the discussions which had taken place - and which were continuing to take place. We were still at the stage of discussing and fine-tuning options. Asked if he was stating categorically that the BBC and Evening Standard reports were wrong and that there was no COBRA meeting today, the PMOS said that the Prime Minister had a wide range of meetings today. Some would be with representatives of the military. However, the idea that we were into 'final blueprint territory' or that someone had returned from the US with a 'folder of plans' that was going to be presented to the Prime Minister was to misrepresent where we were as well as the nature of the discussions. The closest possible contact between the military planners had been maintained from the outset. Those discussions would continue.

Asked if the British Government was now in a position to endorse the 'war aims' as defined by the American Administration in terms of the removal of the Taliban, the PMOS said that it had always been our wish to see a democratic regime in Afghanistan. The Taliban's disregard for the basic human rights of its population was legendary. It was very clear from United Nations Security Council Resolution 1368 that there was a requirement for the Taliban to deliver Bin Laden and that those who harboured terrorism and terrorists in this respect would be held accountable. President Bush could not have been clearer in his speech to Congress. The Taliban had to face up to their responsibilities and the consequences of their actions. Asked whether the British Government would like to see the Taliban deposed, the PMOS said that Jack Straw had said in an interview on Newsnight on Friday night that action could lead to the removal of the Taliban Administration as such. They had choices to make. Asked if there was a wish to see democratic Governments in countries such as Iran and Saudi Arabia, the PMOS said that we were talking about Afghanistan. As we had said throughout, Bin Laden was the prime suspect. It was known that the Taliban regime had harboured Bin Laden and the al-Qaida organisation. It was therefore about more than one individual. It was about a network of terror. A network rooted in Afghanistan. In answer to further questions, the PMOS said it had always been our wish to have a democratically elected regime in Afghanistan. It was clear that the people there were hugely repressed by the Taliban regime. The UN Security Council Resolution made clear that those who harboured terrorists had to face up to their responsibilities. Clearly the Taliban had some serious thinking to do.

Asked why were focussing on Afghanistan when the US had made clear that Iraq was also harbouring terrorists, the PMOS repeated that the focus at this stage was on Afghanistan.

Asked what sort of replacement regime we were considering were the Taliban to be removed from power, the PMOS said that these were issues which would be discussed as we progressed within the international community were we to get to that point. He pointed out that the Sunday story that the Foreign Office had in some way been liasing with the former King of Afghanistan in Italy was wide of the mark. Asked if the Prime Minister had spoken to Kofi Annan about the possibility of a UN Protectorate, the PMOS said that the Prime Minister's conversation with Mr Annan yesterday had chiefly related to a recognition there was a humanitarian situation which needed to be addressed.

Asked to characterise the British role in the military discussions, the PMOS said that as we had said from the outset, we stood shoulder to shoulder with the US. There had been the closest possible co-operation from a military, political and intelligence perspective. Asked if Britain was playing an active role in what was being decided, the PMOS said it would be for the US to reach a view as to how to take things forward. However, as had been demonstrated over the past two weeks, they had been doing this in consultation with their allies. They had not lashed out. They had engaged in a significant level of diplomacy. They understood the need for - and were keen to widen and deepen - the international coalition. Asked how this would square with Donald Rumsfeld's observation that the mission would define the coalition rather than the reverse, the PMOS said he was not a spokesman for the US Administration. However, what was clear was that the US was approaching the issue in a way that was characterised by dialogue. The reaction of the European Council on Friday was a demonstration of the absolute solidarity behind the US and an appreciation of the way they had approached things so far. Discussions were continuing. As the Prime Minister had said on the plane out to New York, to talk about restraint would be to caricature how this process was being conducted.

Asked when we could expect any action to start, the PMOS said were he to know the answer and tell journalists he would soon be looking for another job - and with good reason. Military discussions were continuing in the appropriate way.

Intelligence

Asked if the British Government would publish its independent evidence linking Bin Laden to the attacks given that the US had said that it would publish its own evidence, the PMOS repeated that we had been in close contact with the US Administration. He pointed out that we had to be careful not to jeopardise any information gathering process when talking about matters relating to intelligence material, intelligence sources and intelligence methods. Of course it was everyone's desire to be as open as possible. However, there were obvious constraints on how much 'Glasnost' we could have in such a process. Questioned further, the PMOS said it would not be helpful to get into a discussion about who was contributing to what. It went without saying that there had been the closest co-operation between the different services. Put to him that any dossier that was published in the US should be available in the UK as well, the PMOS observed that were something to be published in the US it would inevitably find its way here pretty quickly.

Iran

Asked if the Foreign Secretary would raise the issue of terrorists operating out of Iran during his visit to the country today, the PMOS said that no doubt the Foreign Secretary would want to discuss with the Iranian Administration a whole range of issues relating to the events of two weeks ago. Principally, he would be going there with the intention of building and reinforcing the coalition. Geographically, Iran was obviously an extremely important country. This was the first visit to the country by a British Foreign Secretary for many years. Clearly he would want to take the opportunity to have a discussion about a wide range of different issues. Questioned further about Iran's position, the PMOS advised journalists to look again at the Iranian Administration's condemnation of the attacks on the US.

Clare Short

Asked if the Prime Minister was happy that Clare Short was 'back on board', the PMOS said we had dealt with this matter last week. Ms Short had expressed the view that no one wanted to see a large number of civilian casualties in such circumstances. That was a view everybody would share. However, people also recognised that in such circumstances difficult decisions and difficult choices had to be made. The Cabinet was united behind the policy of the Prime Minister.

Nato

Asked how the NATO Ministerial meeting in Brussels on Wednesday would help to take things forward, the PMOS pointed out that it had been a scheduled meeting which initially had been due to take place in Italy. It was clear in which direction we seemed to be moving and the meeting was therefore an important forum for Ministers to discuss the situation. Asked what sort of issues they would look at, the PMOS said that they would want to look at the different military, diplomatic and political issues.

END


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Crown copyright material reproduced with the permission of the Controller of HMSO.