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On defence diversification, if our foreign policy is to be successful and our world more peaceful, which I hope all hon. Members want, it makes good business sense to diversify now. We have incredibly skilled engineers and scientists in the defence sector, yet we are not actively trying to diversify. We also know that the availability of weapons fuels conflicts.
The Prime Minister emphasised the importance of science in a major speech this week, and he was right to do so. He did that for two reasons: first, because science is vital to our continued prosperity and, secondly, because he was struck by a meeting that he had with academics and entrepreneurs in Bangalore in January. They were in business in the biotech industry and told him that
Creationism is not an alternative to science which can be taught alongside it. However, it is being taught in schools and the Government seem to have a neutral attitude to that. They are not equally acceptable ways of
Excellent work is being carried out in the health service. The work that the National Institute for Clinical Excellence is doing to get rid of the postcode lottery about which many hon. Members have complained relies on getting the best treatments in the NHS. Those have to be based on good science and that has to be based on rationality. We will not achieve that aim if we take a neutral stance to teaching unfounded theories alongside evidence-based science.
I am not saying that those schools that teach creationism are bad; nor am I objecting to people believing in divine causes. However, we need a rational debate on that. We need to be able to say that schools can be good schools without teaching creationism. We need to keep creationism outside schools so that they can concentrate on the scientific facts and on teaching children the skills that they need in the world.
On international issues, we had an excellent debate yesterday in Westminster Hall on the United Nations in which we mentioned children and the millennium development goals on debt relief. The early-day motion that calls for more debt relief has 345 signatories, which is the third largest number of signatories of any early-day motion. It reflects the desire to ensure that the poorest countries get more debt relief.
Trade was also raised in the debate. When we return from the Whit recess, one of the largest lobbies of Parliament for a long time will take place on that subject. I get many letters pushing for all those issues to be raised more and for the aid budget to have a clear timetable so that we reach the 0.7 per cent. target. The Government have done fantastically well on that. When Labour last left power, aid as a proportion of gross domestic product was up 0.5 per cent. Unfortunately, under the Conservatives, it went right down to 0.26 per cent. I am delighted that we are reversing that by increasing the aid budget by more than 40 per cent. and ensuring that it is effectively targeted on the poorest people. Not only do we have a moral duty to achieve the 0.7 per cent. target, but it is in our interests to do so, in terms of security and of delivering future markets.
We did not have time in Westminster Hall to raise the problem of child soldiers. Approximately 300,000 children are involved in military and armed conflicts around the world. The United Nations Children's Fund has been working to stop the involvement of children in conflicts. We must consider how the United Kingdom can help UNICEF to do that. In September 2000, we recognised children's rights by signing the optional protocol to the UN convention on the rights of the child. However, the Government submitted a declaration to make an exception to the convention, reserving the right to deploy under-18s in certain conditions. That runs contrary to the spirit of the protocol and undermines the message.
The UK actively targets under-18s to join its armed forces. More than 9,000 under-18s were recruited between 1998 and 1999. The UK is the only European country that is incapable of organising itself so that it avoids deploying under-18s in conflict zones, although they fought in the Falklands and the Gulf war, and four under-18s have been killed in combat since 1981.
The issue is important for two reasons. First, it is wrong that children under 18 can fight and die for a country when they are unable to vote for its leaders. They cannot even go into a pub and have one drink. Secondly, by flouting the UN recommendations and sending children into conflict situations, we cannot censure those military regimes that use even younger children in armed conflicts without being labelled hypocrites. When UNICEF recently raised the problem with the Sudan People's Liberation Army, it wanted to know why it should stop using under-18s when the United Kingdom has not agreed to do so, especially as it is not in a state of civil war. We need to support the UN in its work on child soldiers and apply the same standards to ourselves that we want to apply to the rest of the world.
I have no objection to having a separate training organisation that recruits under-18s as long as they can make a fully informed decision at 18 as to whether they want to join the armed forces. The Ministry of Defence says that it cannot recruit unless it gets people when they are young. There is no reason why it should not recruit to separate training organisations, however. Other countries can do it, so why not us? That would get around the operational problems. For example, if we suddenly need to send a ship that is out at sea into conflict and there is one under-18-year-old on board, we have to decide either to lift that person off and break up the team, or not to send the ship into conflict. If we had separate organisations, the operational problems could be avoided. It would not be hard for the Government to achieve that.
The hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland mentioned modernisation. We have had an interesting debate on that. However, I am frustrated that we did not achieve everything this Session. In particular, I am concerned about the idea of paying Select Committee Chairmen more. I worry about what signals that sends out. I want to make the House more effective at representing constituents and scrutinising the Executive. An important aspect of that is to get more respect from our constituents. It is not sensible to pay a few individuals more.
Ms Drown: I fully appreciate that. I hope that we might have an opportunity to think about the issue again, because we did not have long to debate it. Some Hon. Members suggested that there should be a career structure, but it is a pretty flat one. If Select Committee Chairs are to be appointed for eight years or two terms, that will benefit only a few Members and the decision will be made very early on. There is a possibility that Members will be discouraged from becoming Opposition spokespeople. Money should not be the only incentive to move forward, and I do not think that it motivates many Members. A
Another issue that was debated was restricting Select Committee Chairs to two terms or eight years. That is a good idea. Some Members thought that was not fair to those who have great talents and should be able to stay on Committees for longer, but there would be nothing wrong with their taking a term off to share their skills elsewhere, then returning to chair a Committee. A degree of fluidity in that respect could help to bring in new blood and new angles. It would increase respect for Parliament and improve both the way in which we scrutinise legislation and the way in which we are seen by our constituents.
David Burnside (South Antrim): I send my best wishes, on behalf of all those in Northern Ireland, to the English team in the World cup. I remember the finals in 1966, when my parents brought me to stay at the Charing Cross hotel before going to the match between Portugal and Russia to determine third and fourth places. On the Thursday night I got a phone call from my brother in Wolverhampton who said, "I've bought a ticket in a pub for 10 shillingsyou're at the final on Saturday." At the age of 15, that was some present. On behalf of the holders of the home international championship, Northern Ireland, I want to issue an invitation to the England team. When they return, at whatever stage of the tournament, we are prepared to defend the championship if England, Scotland and Wales are willing to restart that fine tournament, which should be held at Wembley.
I want to refer to the situation involving Equitable Life. I had not realised that there was a crisis until constituents came knocking on the door of my office in South Antrim. More than 1 million people have pensions with Equitable Life. I believe in free markets that are allowed to operate for good or bad, but the Treasury has a role to play in putting pressure on Equitable Life to reconsider the position. It does not affect me personally in a disastrous way, but it affects many of the 1 million policyholders who are in dire financial straits owing to the company's bad management. Will the Minister ask the Treasury to use its influence to represent the needs of those policyholders?
I realise that we Ulstermen are meant to be dour and boring and to lack a sense of humourthat is part of our imagebut we tend to get stuck with serious subjects because of where we are from and what we have lived through. I wish to raise a subject that gives me major concern and affects not only my constituents but all law-abiding people in Northern Irelandthe lack of consent for the way in which we are governed. I was one of those who with optimism and enthusiasm, although with many reservations, supported an agreement in 1998 that we hoped would take us on a path from the bad days to a better and brighter future. It has not worked, and those who say that it is working are deluding themselves.
Following a point of order that was raised in the House on Wednesday, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland had the courtesy to respond to a question that I had tabled in April. He declared once again that he saw no threat to the Provisional IRA ceasefire. I have tabled another question to him asking if he would define a ceasefire and on what conditions he would state that the ceasefire had ended. I do not know what a ceasefire that is not under threat means, given that those on ceasefire have carried out 14 murders in Northern Ireland since they signed it. They have carried out major robberies and other criminal activities in Northern Ireland, and they are the main line of inquiry in the Police Service of Northern Ireland's investigation into the theft of intelligence information from special branch at Castlereagh.
Sinn Fein-IRA received $2 million from FARC, a terrorist organisation in Colombia that started off in rural terrorism and has been trained in urban terrorism by 15 members of Sinn Fein-IRA, three of whom are awaiting trial in Colombia. That is supposedly an organisation on ceasefire. One of its leaders, Martin McGuinness, says, "We are not involved in drug dealing." What greater involvement could there be? FARC supplies 70 per cent. of the heroin and cocaine that enters the United States. The Provisional IRA and Sinn Fein receive $2 million dollars from that organisation, yet say they are not involved in drug dealing.