PRESS BRIEFING: 11AM WEDNESDAY 17 DECEMBER 2003
The PMOS told journalists that he had some good news for Christmas. He was pleased to be able to confirm that the D Notice Committee had agreed to lift the Notice on the latest unemployment figures, which meant that journalists would be able to report all points west that the figures today showed that there were 28.17 million people in work in the UK - the highest number since records began.
The Prime Minister's Official Spokesman (PMOS) advised journalists that the Prime Minister had had a twenty-five minute meeting this morning with Abdul Aziz al-Hakem, the President of the Iraqi Governing Council (IGC), as well as three members of the Council who were accompanying the President as he visited a number of Capitals. Discussion had focussed on the situation in Iraq and the consequences of the capture of Saddam Hussein. The IGC President had noted that many Iraqis who had feared his possible return had now had that fear removed. The Prime Minister and the IGC President had also agreed that Saddam's arrest presented an opportunity for reconciliation - a chance for communities to come together, allowing all traditions and tribes to play a part in the new Iraq. They had then had a discussion relating to the structures and mechanisms that could be put in place to allow that to happen alongside the implementation of the political timetable which had been announced last month. The PMOS added that Jack Straw and Hilary Benn would be holding a press conference at the FCO later this afternoon with the IGC President.
Asked about the Prime Minister's comments on WMD in his BFBS interview yesterday, the PMOS said that we had made it clear to anyone who had contacted us after the interview that the Prime Minister's words had not broken any new ground, which we believed everyone had accepted. He observed that the one thing which was sometimes overlooked from David Kay's Iraq Survey Group (ISG) interim report was in fact the detail. Mr Kay had highlighted a number of areas, all of which were in breach of UN Security Council Resolutions. Any one of them, had it been known at the time, would surely have triggered a report back to the Security Council, followed by an explicit authorisation from them for the use of force under the terms of Resolution 1441. The ISG report had spoken of the "clandestine network of laboratories and safe houses". It had also pointed to the discovery of a prison laboratory complex, possibly used in human testing of BW agents which Iraqi officials had been ordered specifically not to declare to the UN. The ISG had also found a vial of a strain from which botulinum toxin could be produced hidden in the home of an Iraqi scientist. The same scientist had said that he had been asked to hide a further large cache of agents and had refused. We had yet to find that cache. Iraqi scientists and senior Government officials had told the ISG that Saddam had remained firmly committed to acquiring nuclear weapons and that he had been determined to resume nuclear weapons development as soon as the West relaxed. Nuclear centrifuge components and other equipment had been discovered hidden in a scientist's garden. It was clear that Saddam had also ordered the development of ballistic missiles, with a range well over the UN limit of 150km. Clearly, no one could doubt the existence of a systematic programme of deception and concealment and the fact that scientists involved in Iraqi WMD programmes had been threatened with death to stop them talking to UN weapons inspectors before the war. In fact, David Kay had told the press that one scientist had been 'assassinated literally hours after meeting an ISG member - killed by a single shot to the back of his head outside his apartment". Clearly, the Iraqi scientific community had been living in fear for some considerable time. Put to him that he was making a leap that military action would have followed, the PMOS said that he could give a seminar on 1441 if people wanted. He doubted they did. Everyone had understood what 'serious consequences' had meant.
SECONDARY SCHOOL PERFORMANCE TABLES
Asked if the Prime Minister had taken note of the fact that grammar schools dominated the top of 'raw score' league tables for Key Stage 3 exam results, as indeed they also did for the 'value added' tables, and whether legislation which allowed local ballots to close grammar schools would be repealed, the PMOS said that there were no plans to change the legislation. He acknowledged the focus in parts of the press this morning on grammar schools. However, people should not lose sight of the fact that the figures which had been published today showed the best ever results for 14-year olds. Above all, they showed the knock-on effect of the improvements in primary schools which had been made in the last Parliament, particularly in literacy and numeracy. Of course, selection on the grounds of academic ability would always be an advantage. Our policy on grammar schools had not changed. In answer to further questions, the PMOS said that the main point on which to focus was the overall improvement in 14-year-olds' education. We recognised that there was going to be a debate about which particular schools had achieved the best results. However, what we were about was improvements in all our schools. That meant having diversity of provision at secondary level in terms of City Academies and specialist schools and moving towards more tailored and personalised education for individuals that allowed them to realise their potential.
SAUDI ARABIA/MRS BLAIR
Asked if it was appropriate for the Prime Minister's wife to criticise Saudi Arabia's treatment of women in a public speech, the PMOS said that Mrs Blair had made it clear that she was talking about perception and not reality. It was also important to recognise that the Saudi Ambassador had not taken any offence at her comments. No one appeared to be particularly exercised about what she had said.