Blair apologises to ejected pensioner

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Indy Politics

Interviewed on GMTV, the Prime Minister was asked whether Mr Wolfgang had his personal apology.

Mr Blair said: "Yes, he does. I'm really sorry about it.

"I wasn't in the conference centre at the time myself. It is difficult, the stewards are volunteers, they are not quite sure how to deal with a situation like that and, of course, you should deal with it differently and I'm really sorry for it and it must have been upsetting for him."

Mr Blair said: "The conference is stewarded by these volunteers, and they are people who try to do a very good job.

"This time they were a little bit over-zealous so I fully apologise to him, and I'm sorry about it.

"We will obviously have to make sure in the future when that happens and someone is elderly ... we should make sure that people handle it sensitively."

Mr Blair later insisted that free speech was not being stifled at the Labour conference, even though there was no formal debate on the Iraq war at this week's gathering in Brighton.

He said on BBC1's Breakfast programme: "People are perfectly entitled to freedom of speech in our country and we should celebrate that fact and I'm really sorry about what happened to Walter and I've apologised to him.

"There are lots of people who have got up in loads of debates and denounced the Government and denounced me.

"We have debates about Iraq the whole time. The notion that people are afraid to express their views... I have them expressed to me the whole time.

"It's just an unfortunate thing that happened. The Labour Party has apologised. The chairman of the Labour Party and I have apologised to him."

Mr Blair stressed that stewards at the conference are volunteers, adding: "It is difficult for them when someone is interrupting someone's speech, but it should be handled sensitively, particularly with an older person."

Mr Blair was questioned on why the 82-year-old had apparently been briefly arrested under the Terrorism Act after he was manhandled out of the conference centre.

"My understanding is that his delegate's credentials showed he had been ejected before and he had to wait while that was checked out."

The Prime Minister said it was important that people did not take the incident "out of proportion".

"People criticise us over Iraq all the time."

But Mr Blair indicated he was unlikely to give Mr Wolfgang a personal apology.

"I'm sure I'm not going to meet Walter. There's no need to. I can just offer him my apology."

Liberal Democrat president Simon Hughes said the incident betrayed a streak of authoritarianism in the Labour Party.

He said on BBC1 Breakfast: "Here's a conference with the Foreign Secretary tackling some of the most controversial issues of the day and people aren't allowed to stay in their seats if they shout any protest, even restrained protest.

"It just seems to me that it's an attitude question about authority and authoritarianism. The Labour Party has so much in it still that says 'We will make you do it our way'."

Mr Blair declined to comment on speculation over the timing of his departure from office, which has been raging since his conference speech on Tuesday, in which he spelt out a substantial programme of work he wants to see through.

The Prime Minister has said he will step down before the next general election, but allies indicated after his speech this may mean resignation in three or more years' time, rather than the 18 months which Chancellor Gordon Brown is thought to favour.

Mr Blair said on BBC Breakfast: "We have only just had an election, which I fought. We have got a busy programme to get on with.

"I'm just not going to get into speculation about leadership or timing and all the rest of it.

"We have got a sizeable majority and we have got to get on with the programme."

Mr Blair made clear that he was determined to press ahead with reforms of public services such as healthcare and education, despite concern expressed by unions and activists about what they see as creeping privatisation.