Yesterday, Tony Blair invited the regional press, including The Birmingham Post, to No 10 for a lunchtime chat on a variety of topics, as Political Editor Jonathan Walker reports...
The Prime Minister looked a little surprised when his guests stood up as he strolled into the room.
The regional newspapers, including The Birmingham Post and our equivalents in Manchester, Liverpool and Newcastle, had requested an audience with the Prime Minister.
Plenty of journalists would like to sit down with Tony Blair, and his time is limited. Interview requests are not granted very often.
But Westminster is on an election footing. And Labour has made it clear that it is keen to reach out directly to voters, which means plenty of public meetings, using the internet and talking to the regional press.
Perhaps this was why we had been invited into one of the grand Downing Street dining rooms to meet a relaxed Mr Blair.
He asked us to sit down, tucked into a cheese sandwich and answered our questions.
?The economy in the West Midlands and Birmingham has done extremely well, and we?ve got to continue with a strong economy, low inflation, low mortgage rates, low unemployment.
?There are many examples of modern manufacturing working well in the country. It is not that manufacturing is out of date. On the contrary, what is happening is that there is a change.
?We are moving to higher and higher value-added goods and services. That is a pattern that is familiar in all counties around the world.
?So some of the distinctions now between manufacturing and service industries. I find it quite hard sometimes when I am visiting a company to tell if it is a manufacturing or a service sector company.
?I think sometimes we get some of these distinctions a bit wrong.
?There is every future for manufacturing industry provided we realise that the future for manufacturing industry is going to be about value added, it is going to be about using science, technology and a highly-skilled workforce. It is not going to be the old mass- production manufacturing.?
Mr Blair was asked how his optimism squared with an announcement by electronics firm LG Philips that it is to close a factory in Durham with the loss of 761 jobs.
?What Government has to do today is not give people false promises, that we can stop globalisation, we can stop manufacturing industry becoming, or certain types of manufacturing, becoming obsolete. That is the way of the world, it is going to keep changing the whole time.?
The Government had an important role ensuring people had access to training and reskilling programmes, he said.
?We have given local authorities powers to remove illegal settlements and it?s extremely important they use those powers.
"You cannot have a situation-where the rights of people who are settling illegally prevail-those who live in an area, and who expect that area to be run according to proper rules of law.
?That is why we have introduced these new provisions for an immediate stop notice on that development so that the council can go to the court and get it stopped immediately.
"There are issues about how you provide proper legal sites but it should be done in a proper planned way. It shouldn't be done by people just pitching up in an area and doing whatever they want.
?I can only introduce the powers. I can?t force them [councils] to use them.?
?We represent many rural constituencies and mine is one of them.
?The hunting issue is on its own as an issue.
?We have got a law where the Countryside Alliance issued guidance. People seem to be abiding by that guidance.
?As people know, I wanted a compromise but it wasn?t possible to get one.
?But actually what seems with the legislation to be happening is a compromise of sorts, which I hope over time will work out.?
?I think it is very tough for many farmers. We look constantly to see what we can do, because it is very difficult.
?You can?t interfere with people?s rights to conduct their business in the way they want to conduct it, but there is a code of practice [for supermarkets] that we?ve put into place and we need to look carefully at whether is something more we can do to make sure it is actually abided by.
?I know there there are farmers ? I hear this constantly ? who believe that code is being flouted.?
Mr Blair defended Labour?s controversial anti-terror legislation which has suffered setbacks in the House of Lords.
?While legislation is passing though, people have one concern. That concern is usually it is too tough, it is an offence to civil liberties, it is too draconian.
?If that [terrorist] act that the legislation is designed to prevent actually comes about, they are asking the opposite questions. They are saying did you take tough enough action, were you vigilant enough?
?I don?t see how I could justify to people ignoring the advice I am being given.
?I?m just acting on their advice ? I?m not hiding behind it, I personally think it is perfectly sensible advice, but it is the united advice of the security services and the police.?
Mr Blair was asked why the public could not be told exactly what the detainees who recently returned to Britain had been accused of.
?To be frank, from a political point of view it would help. For a lot of these people, their friends and others come out and say this person has never done anything, and I?m told we?ve just got to remain quiet about it.
?I just remind anyone about Guantanomo ? I always said it was an anomaly and has to be resolved and I have brought the people back ? but they were all arrested arising out the Afghan war, where people were trying to kill British and American troops.?
?Personally I am in favour of extending the mayoral system.
?People say it hasn?t worked but I disagree. I think you would find it quite hard to take it off any city that has got its mayor now.
?For the rest of us, it?s to try to get decision-making down to a local level. That is one of the reasons why we are giving parish councils and local neighbourhoods greater powers to influence their local policing and so on.
?People want to feel that their local voice is heard and that is where I think this will go now.
?The problem always with regional devolution in England is that in Wales and Scotland there is a clear national identity. In Northern Ireland people are aware Northern Ireland is an entity.
?[But] even in the Northwest and North-east, where you probably have a greater regional coherence than anywhere else, they don?t quite feel the same. And that?s the problem with it.
?We said it was a manifesto commitment, we gave people a shot at it, and I?m not saying if people came forward in the North-west or anywhere else and said we want a regional government then we wouldn?t facilitate that, but I don?t notice that happening a great deal at the moment.?
?I totally agree there is a long term issue ? how do you reform council tax fundamentally? We are looking at that now.
?But we have managed through a combination of extra money and the threat of capping to keep it down this year.
?We are aware of the fact council tax is a big problem for people, and we are looking very carefully at what can be done on a long term basis.?
?I have been doing an awful lot of out and about, not just in the last few weeks but in the last year.
?My assessment is that there is a real myth that the public aren?t interested in politics. They are interested in policy. They are not interested in process.
?They have no interest in talking heads on the news telling them there is this clever trick and that clever trick and all the rest of it.
?What they are interested in, you talk to them about the National Health Service or the education system or crime or anti-social behaviour, you will find a lot of interest.?
?There is a wind of change blowing through the Middle East, and that is fantastically important for this country and our security.?
He was asked if he felt his decision to take part in the invasion of Iraq had been vindicated.
?I have always said I could never disrespect someone who took a different point of view on Iraq. There is a different point of view.
?All I have ever asked is for people to give a hearing on the point of view I?ve got, which is that the world will be a safer and better place if Iraq is a stable democracy.?