From the Prime Minister's spokesperson on: Egypt, AV Bill, Bribery Act, Health Bill and misc.
Asked what the Prime Minister’s assessment was of what had been happening over the last few hours, the Prime Minister’s Spokesman (PMS) told the assembled press that the Prime Minister had set out the latest position this morning. We wanted to see a process of political reform with an orderly transition to a government that responded to the legitimate grievances of the Egyptian people. The Prime Minister made his views clear to President Mubarak over the weekend.
The PMS said it was a fast-moving situation in Egypt. Our travel advice was being kept under constant review and reflected our assessment of what was happening on the ground. We were in regular contact with ABTA, tour operators and airlines.
The PMS added that the majority of Britons in Egypt were in the Red Sea resorts such as Sharm El Shaik, and at the moment the Red Sea area was calm.
We had been deploying additional staff to Egypt, by drawing in people from the region as well as sending out staff from the UK. We had a large team in place at Cairo airport who would be staying overnight to offer assistance. We now had a team of over 30 consular officials in Egypt, providing help and support to British people.
Asked what the latest estimate was on the number of British people in Egypt, the PMS said that we thought there were up to 30,000 Britons, including British expats.
Asked if the UK Government wanted to see a new government in Egypt headed up by President Mubarak, the PMS replied that he would not want to say any more than what the Prime Minister had said this morning; the Prime Minister had been clear that we were not saying that a certain person should run a certain country. The Prime Minister had talked about ‘encouraging friends’ to do the right thing.
Asked what the prospects were for similar pro-democracy protests spreading to other countries in the region, the PMS replied that he would not be adding anything to what we had already said on the subject. We had seen similar situations in recent weeks and we were monitoring what was going on.
On whether there were any plans for the Government to charter planes to bring British citizens back, the PMS said that we were not arranging flights at the present time, but we were keeping the situation under review. The situation was slightly different for UK tourists than it was for US tourists, who were mainly in the historic centres, whereas the vast majority of British tourists were in the Red Sea areas.
Asked if there was any extra help being given by the Government in getting people to airports, the PMS replied that we had already sent one rapid deployment team to Cairo and another would be sent today. These teams consisted of specially trained FCO staff, who were trained to deal with these kinds of situations.
When asked about the phrase, ‘orderly transition’ and how it could be read any other way than the UK Government looking beyond President Mubarak, the PMS said that we had commented on the issue. The PMS pointed people towards the Prime Minister’s remarks. It was not for the UK Government to dictate who was leading this country or that country.
On why having a view on the situation meant dictating to a country who should be their leader, the PMS said that we had expressed our opinion over the past week and over the weekend, and the US had done the same. As the Prime Minister had said, Egypt was a friend, and we were encouraging friends to do the right thing. The PMS said that it was a very different thing to start to dictate to others.
Asked if the Prime Minister viewed President Mubarak as the legitimate President of Egypt, the PMS replied that it was a fact that President Mubarak was the President of Egypt.
Asked if the FCO advice was still that the Red Sea area was safe to travel to and people should still book their flights to that area of the country, the PMS replied that the FCO did not offer advice of that description. The FCO had made a general assessment as well as giving specific advice on individual parts of the country.
Asked if the Prime Minister was still confident of getting the Bill through in time, the PMS said there was not a great deal to add on what we had already said on this. The PMS said no doubt there would be discussions during the course of today and this evening and he did not want to pre-empt them. The Government remained committed to pushing this legislation through.
The PMS added that the Lords rightly had a role of reviewing and scrutinising legislation. If they had specific proposals on any of the proposals the Government had set out, they could vote on them, but at the moment they didn’t appear to be having many votes.
Put that there were reports this morning that the Government would introduce a ‘guillotine’ motion either this evening or tomorrow if it had not been resolved, the PMS replied that we would see how things went today and then take stock this afternoon and this evening.
Put that the PMS had said last week that the ‘guillotine’ was not an option and had the position now changed, the PMS replied that we were still considering our options; if the Lords had particular views on particular aspects of the Bill then they might want to vote on them.
Asked why the two proposals needed to be passed in the same Bill, the PMS replied that the Government had set out a large programme of political reform. These were two priority areas for the Government which was why they were being legislated for first. The PMS said that they were both in the same Bill and we would be sticking to that.
Put that the Lords were sending a very clear message to the Prime Minister, the PMS said that their role was to review and scrutinise legislation. There had been a lot of debate, but not much voting on specifics.
Put that the PMS had set out what the role of the Lords was and would he set out what their role wasn’t, the PMS replied that he had set out what their role was. Asked if the Prime Minister was confident that he had a majority for a possible ‘guillotine’, the PMS said that we would take stock during the course of the day.
Put that it was also the role of the Lords to delay legislation, the PMS said that this was not a very complicated set of proposals. There was a referendum on AV and the equalisation of constituencies, but we had now seen over 80 hours of debate on that and it did not seem to be going anywhere.
The PMS added that the Government would like the Bill to go through because it would be cheaper to hold the referendum on the original day.
Put that the CBI’s new chief had said this morning that the Act was not fit for purpose and was it the case that the Government was looking at it again, the PMS replied that we were looking again at this issue. We had listened to the concerns of business about the regulatory burden imposed by this legislation and we were looking again to see what we could do.
Put that the Prime Minister had said this morning that his own brother-in-law thought that hospitals would be disadvantaged by the new proposals, the PMS replied that we were conscious that we had a job to do in explaining these reforms, which was what the Prime Minister had been doing this morning.
The PMS said that the NHS was a very large and complicated system. There would be a lot of scrutiny of that system whenever it was changed. The point the Prime Minister had been making was that we could not go on as we were. Demographic change, an ageing population and the increasing costs of healthcare meant that we needed to address this.
Asked if he was acknowledging that the Government had failed to make its case so far, the PMS replied that people would not necessarily question how the NHS worked when it wasn’t subject to change.
Asked what the Prime Minister thought about the Kings Fund research that claimed the NHS was not getting worse, as some Government Ministers had suggested, the PMS replied that it was his understanding that the research had looked at what had happened in the Health Service over a long time period.
The PMS said that people would expect, with medical and scientific advances, to see our ability to treat certain diseases improve. We also had to look to the future and realise that with an ageing population and costs of healthcare going up, there would be pressures going forward for the Health Service.
Put that the research had suggested that we were getting better faster than the countries we were currently lagging behind, the PMS said that there were problems to come in the Health Service if we did not change the system. We could not afford to increase funding on healthcare as quickly as in the past. This meant that we would have to try and improve the system and the way it worked.
Asked if Andy Coulson was still at No10, the PMS said that he was.