From the Prime Minister's spokesperson on: Chile, Zimbabwe, Linda Norgrove, quangos and pensions.
The Prime Minister’s Spokesman (PMS) informed the assembled press that the Prime Minister spoke to President Pinera of Chile yesterday afternoon.
The Prime Minister offered his warm congratulations on the success of the rescue operation. The thoughts of the British people were with the people of Chile. There was huge admiration in Britain for the remarkable strength and determination of the 33 miners and their families. The rescue effort had demonstrated tremendous skill.
President Pinera welcomed the Prime Minister’s call and said it had been a magical day for Chile. The leaders looked forward to meeting in Downing Street on Monday.
Asked why the Home Office was issuing new guidance on returning asylum seekers to Zimbabwe and what had changed in Zimbabwe to effect the change, the PMS said that the situation had been kept under review and was recognition of progress in the country and that there was a new Government in place. The PMS said that the change in policy in 2006 had been for a temporary period. But clearly if a court decided that someone would be at risk if they were returned then they would not have to return, but that would be a matter for the courts.
Asked if the changes would come into force with immediate effect, the PMS said that the Immigration and Asylum Chamber of the Unified Tribunal Service (IAC) would be hearing a country guidance case very shortly which we expected to reflect the changes in the country in recent years. Therefore we were waiting to hear the outcome of that before returns started but we were making the policy changes today.
Asked if the Linda Norgrove case would be discussed in the Prime Minister’s meeting with General Petraeus today, the PMS confirmed that he expected it to be discussed, but he made it clear that it was not our intention to provide a day by day account of the investigation. Our objective and our priority was to ensure the family were kept informed before anyone else was.
Asked how many quangos were actually disappearing as a result of that day’s announcement, the PMS said that as a result of the announcement more than half of those bodies would be reformed in some way to ensure that they were designed in the right way to do their job. As Frances Maude was making clear in his interviews that day, the test that was being applied when reviewing all those bodies was did it provide a technical function, did it need to be politically impartial, and did it need to act independently from ministers to establish facts.
Asked why this would ensure more accountability, the PMS replied that by bringing a function into a department the minister would be directly accountable. And that accountability had always been a key part of the review, as well as driving efficiencies.
Asked why the Government was unable to put a figure on total savings, the PMS replied that would come out in the spending review. Most of the bodies received money through departmental budgets, and departments would make judgements on how much they wanted to reduce individual bodies’ budgets.
Asked how we would know we had achieved efficiencies, the PMS replied that departments would be operating in a tougher financial climate and would need to find savings. The kind of reforms we were making and the nature of the review had been to look for efficiencies.
Asked when we would be able to make further announcements on the future of those bodies, the PMS said we had reviewed 900 bodies and we had made firm decisions on the direction of travel on the vast majority of them. We had decided to substantially reform 481 of them in the space of a few months. Necessarily these big changes to the structure of Government would take some time to implement, and we needed to make sure we did that properly.
Put that the changes to pensions meant the middle classes were being squeezed again, the PMS said the last Government had put in place some proposals to restrict the amount of pension relief for people on higher incomes. Those changes had not yet come in but were expected to raise around four billion pounds. There had been a lot of criticism for those proposals from the industry who thought they were complex and unworkable. At the time of the budget the Chancellor said we would look again at this and consult with the industry. We have done that. The PMS said that if you looked at the industry and the business groups’ comments that morning they were all welcoming the proposal.
Asked how many people this would affect, the PMS said the annual allowance of fifty thousand would affect around 100 thousand pension savers and the vast majority of those would have incomes in excess of 100 thousand pounds.