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Mr. Peter Luff (Mid-Worcestershire) (Con):
Does not the delay in implementation, at which I think the Minister has hinted today, give all those who are genuinely concerned about animal welfarethat includes the middle way group, which I think includes the Minister, although sadly not the right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman)a genuine chance to look again at any new evidence that has emerged since the measure became an Act of Parliament? In that context, will the Minister give a commitment to meet the middle way group to discuss its report on the welfare aspects of shooting foxes, which has passed the peer group review process and is established scientific fact?
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Alun Michael: May I clarify the point absolutely? I have given no hint of delay; I have simply acknowledged our understanding that an application for a delay in commencement may be made by the Countryside Alliance when it loses its case at the hearing of first instance. I have made it clear several times that we are content to leave the court to look at the issues and at what the Act says and to take a decision on such an application.
The hon. Gentleman raised animal welfare issues. We are concerned about those issues, but it is important for those who support hunting to recognise that legislation is now in place and, even as they continue their challenge in the courtthe right place to do soto engage with animal welfare issues. It is for that reason that I shall seek to promote discussions, including animal welfare organisations and those involved in hunting activities, on issues relating to the welfare of horses and dogs that might arise from the implementation of the legislation, whether that is on 18 February, which is the working assumption with which we must stay, or whether there is a decision by the court that makes a difference to that expectation.
Mr. Edward Garnier (Harborough) (Con): I agree with the Minister this far: about the only clear part of the Hunting Act is the clause on its implementation date. Does not he think it regrettable that the Attorney-General and No. 10 allowed themselves to be quoted in the media discussing the implementation question? Would not it have been better to leave that to private discussions between the respective lawyers and the courts?
Did the Minister authorise the writing of the article in The Sunday Telegraph by his Parliamentary Private Secretary, the hon. Member for The Wrekin (Peter
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Bradley), which seemed to counter, shall we say, some of the arguments that the Minister urgedin good faith, I am surewhen he was piloting the Bill through the House?
Alun Michael: First, the hon. and learned Gentleman, as a lawyer, should know that the whole Bill is clear. It makes very clear what is illegal following the date of commencement, and I hope that he and Opposition Members who have, in other circumstances, enjoined people to obey the law will encourage their constituents to obey the Hunting Act. The law is absolutely clear and the hon. Member for North Wiltshire (Mr. Gray) ought to read the Act and counsel his constituents to obey the law. I should be interested to know whether he still holds to his words about letting loose the dogs of war or whether he supports his other statements about people obeying the law. The Conservative party needs to be a little bit clearer than it has been up to now as to whether it is a law-abiding party.
The second point raised by the hon. and learned Gentleman was on discussions between lawyers on the two sides. I heard the chairman of the Countryside Alliance refer to those discussions and the alliance appears to have made it clear that it would apply for an injunction in the event of its failing in the hearing of first instance.
Finally, the hon. and learned Gentleman referred to an article in The Sunday Telegraph. Through the encouragement of some Opposition Members, I have received various pieces of correspondence from people who, like him, have clearly not read the interesting article written by my Parliamentary Private Secretary. I should be interested to receive comments and contributions from people who have actually read the article. I suggest that the hon. and learned Gentleman does sohe clearly has not done so as yet.
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The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Mr. Jack Straw): With permission, Mr. Speaker, I should like to make a statement concerning the return to the United Kingdom of the four British citizens detained at Guantanamo Bay.
Let me first recall the context. The attacks of 11 September 2001 were the worst terrorist atrocity that the United States, the United Kingdom and the whole world have ever suffered. In response to those attacks, a coalition of countries came together to launch a military campaign against al-Qaeda and its Taliban supporters, to remove them from their strongholds in Afghanistan and elsewhere.
In those operations, thousands of individuals believed to be al-Qaeda or Taliban fighters or their supporters were detained by coalition forces. The vast majority of those individuals were released, but those who were deemed to pose a substantial risk of returning to the conflict were sent by the United States to detention facilities at its naval base at Guantanamo Bay, there to be detained and questioned about their knowledge of al-Qaeda's activities. As a result, valuable information has been gained, which has helped to protect the international community from further al-Qaeda and related terrorist attacks.
Approximately 200 individuals have been released from Guantanamo Bay since their original detention. However, the United States Government believe that a number of detainees so released have returned to terrorism, demonstrating the dilemma faced by the United States in considering such releases.
Nine British citizens were among those originally detained at Guantanamo Bay. I and the Government as a whole have taken our consular responsibilities to those detained very seriously. British officials have visited them regularly, delivered messages and mail from their families and secured improvements in the physical conditions of their detention. I have made a written ministerial statement to the House following each of those visits.
I have also set out to the House on many occasions the British Government's consistent position in relation to these detainees and their detention. As the House will recall, discussions took place in 2003, led by my noble and learned Friend the Attorney-General on the UK side. The Government then requested the return of all of the British detainees held at Guantanamo Bay.
Five of the nine detainees were returned to the United Kingdom last March. In announcing their return to the House on 24 February last year, I said that the Government would continue to work to resolve the position of the remaining four British detainees: Feroz Abbasi, Moazzam Begg, Jamaal Belmar and Martin Mubanga. Since last March, the Government have been in regular discussion with the United States authorities about this. Foreign Office Ministers and I have also held a number of meetings with the families and lawyers of the four men and with their Members of Parliament, and officials have been in regular contact with them.
Following contact between the United Kingdom and the United Statesinvolving, in particular, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and his officeand
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between United States Secretary of State Colin Powell and myself, the United States Government have now agreed to the return of all four men to the United Kingdom. That decision follows intensive and complex discussions to address United States security concerns. All the families have been informed of that decision this morning, as have their Members of Parliament.
The four men will be returned in the next few weeks. Once they are back in the United Kingdom, the police will consider whether to arrest them under the Terrorism Act 2000 for questioning in connection with possible terrorist activity. Any subsequent action will be a matter for the police and the Crown Prosecution Service. The House will understand that it would therefore not be right for me to comment further on that aspect of the matter.
I should like to assure the House that every practical step will be taken by the relevant United Kingdom authorities to maintain national security and to protect public safety. Throughout the period of detention of British nationals in Guantanamo Bay, the Government have sought to balance the need to safeguard the interests of Britons detained overseas with our duty to meet the threat from international terrorism.
Terrorism is opposed to the values of every faith and religion, and seeks to deny the most basic of human rightsthe right to life, to security and to go about our daily business free from harm. Working with our allies, we will continue resolutely to defend those rights through a robust and determined approach to combating terrorism and its networks of support wherever these are found.
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