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Mr. Vernon Coaker (Gedling): I congratulate my right hon. Friend on finding time for the Fur Farming (Prohibition) Bill. All of us who are interested in animal welfare will be especially pleased with her announcement today. However, will she confirm that the Government will get the Bill through the House, even though certain Conservative Members seem prepared to go to any length to stop it?
Mrs. Beckett: I know that my hon. Friend has strongly supported the Bill for a long time, and I am grateful to him for his kind remarks. I assure him that, as we said on the previous occasion when the Bill should have been put before the House, the Government remain committed to making a change that is sought by the industry as well as by the general public.
Mr. Michael Fabricant (Lichfield): Will the Leader of the House arrange an urgent debate on the current crisis arising from the mismanagement of our national foreign currency and precious metal reserves? She will know that we do not enjoy a strong pound, which has fallen from $1.68 to $1.55 over the past few months. However, we suffer from a very weak euro, which has fallen by 23 per cent. Why has Germany decided to increase the value of its reserves by buying gold, whereas Britain has decided to sell gold and buy weak, plummeting euros?
Mrs. Beckett: As the House is aware, decisions about the management of reserves are taken on the advice of the Bank of England. That advice has been followed in this case. However, I think that the hon. Gentleman's other remarks were more than a little off-message. He said that Britain does not enjoy a strong pound, but my understanding is that the Conservative party has been
Shona McIsaac (Cleethorpes): May I draw my right hon. Friend's attention to a written answer from my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, dated 13 April, to a question from me about the case for compensation for distant-water trawlermen? The answer states:
Mrs. Beckett: I am grateful to my hon. Friend; I know how strongly she has campaigned on this issue. She is right to identify the matter as one that has been around for decades rather than years. I am not in a position to deal with her request, but I shall certainly draw her remarks and concerns to the attention of the relevant Ministers, who I know will be anxious to deal with them if they can.
Dr. George Turner (North-West Norfolk): My right hon. Friend will know that the nature of the reporting of, and media commentary on, the trial of my constituent Tony Martin has done much to raise the fear of crime in rural areas. Local Conservatives have been eager to attack the Government, but their comments have undermined the police. Moreover, the Leader of the Opposition has stomped around the country making unhelpful comments which, as my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister noted yesterday, he does not repeat in the House. Does not my right hon. Friend think that the Government should hold a debate on law and order, so that those issues can be discussed in the House? I hope that on this occasion she does not refer me to Westminster Hall, as I have rarely seen the Leader of the Opposition there.
Mrs. Beckett: My hon. Friend makes a fair point, both about the attitude and stance taken by the Leader of the Opposition and about the fact that the right hon. Gentleman is not likely to be visible in Westminster Hall.
I share my hon. Friend's concern. Yesterday, the exchanges between my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition offered a good and classic example of the shortsightedness and folly of the Leader of the Opposition, not only in the way in which he raises such issues but in his remark that he was prepared to see a change in mandatory life sentences--a legitimate point--but only in the context of self-defence. The right hon. Gentleman apparently overlooked not only the fact that Kenneth Noye was released by a Conservative Government, but that his defence, on both occasions when he appeared before the courts, was self-defence. All of that shows that it is wise to think more carefully about such matters than the Leader of the Opposition apparently does.
The Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Geoffrey Hoon): This, the second of our three annual themed defence debates, follows our recent debate on defence personnel issues. During that debate, hon. Members noted the widespread deployment of our armed forces personnel. We have thousands of British service and civilian personnel deployed overseas--from the Falkland Islands to Kuwait; from Kosovo to Cyprus.
During the last year--as so consistently in the past--the performance of our armed forces has been exemplary. Whether supporting the police in Northern Ireland, delivering aid to Mozambique or keeping the peace in Indonesia and in the Balkans, they have made a real difference and have been a real force for good.
I am all too conscious of the demands we make of our service personnel and of the dangers that they face as a result. In that context, I regret to have to confirm to the House that one of the unarmed United Nations military observers detained by rebel forces in Sierra Leone is a British officer. We understand that he is safe and well; his next of kin have been informed. No other British citizens have been detained. Negotiations are taking place on the political and diplomatic fronts to secure the safe release of all those detained. I am sure that the House will understand why I cannot give more details at present.
The House has rightly paid fulsome tribute to the dedication and professionalism of our service men and women, and of our civil servants who support them. I am sure that no one will object if I repeat my appreciation of the quality of our personnel and of the exemplary work they do.
As the right hon. Gentleman will understand, it is sometimes thought that deployments with the UN are almost an easy life. However, what he has just told the House makes it clear that they are often extremely difficult and dangerous. I associate myself with the appreciation that he has expressed on behalf of the Government, and hope that the person who has been apprehended will be released speedily.
Mr. Hoon: I am most grateful for the right hon. and learned Gentleman's observations. Events in Sierra Leone emphasise the point that such operations must be approached with maximum care--they involve the full range of skills of our armed forces. We are working at every level to secure the officer's release.
Mr. Andrew Robathan (Blaby): As the Secretary of State is aware, the history of the Sierra Leone affair is lengthy and difficult. In the light of this disaster--seven peacekeepers were killed yesterday--does he think that it might have been better to have paid more attention to what Peter Penfold and President Kabbah appeared to want to do? They wanted to employ--dare one say?--
Mr. Hoon: As I am sure the hon. Gentleman is aware, until very recently the operation in Sierra Leone had been remarkably successful and was achieving results. Certainly, there have been difficulties recently which the international community is seeking to address. I am not sure that his suggestion would necessarily have helped to improve the situation.
Our previous debate was about how personnel are deployed and managed. This debate is about why they are so deployed, why our armed forces are spread across the globe and why they are so actively engaged in the modern world. In each and every case, there are strong and specific reasons for the deployment of British forces. Indeed, it is a measure of the quality of our forces that they are able to operate as successfully as they do in circumstances where the political environment is often fluid and complicated.
However, the underlying reasons for the deployment of our forces are usually quite straightforward. As a member of the United Nations Security Council, as a leading member of NATO, the European Union and the Commonwealth and as a comparatively wealthy nation that depends on free trade, Britain has clear responsibilities for, and interests in, peace and stability. The practical imperative is clear: our prosperity depends on trade and on peace and stability, so preserving a peaceful, stable world is clearly in our immediate interests. The United Kingdom is fortunate that it does not at present face a military threat. Home defence is not an issue in the same way that it was for much of the last century. It would take some considerable time for a direct conventional military threat to the United Kingdom, or to western Europe as a whole, to re-emerge. I am pleased to be able to say that we see no sign of such a re-emergence, although we must retain the ability to reorganise our forces should that change. For the moment, Britain is fortunate to occupy a peaceful corner of an otherwise troubled world.