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3.14 pm

Ms Julia Drown (South Swindon): I am pleased to follow the hon. Member for West Derbyshire (Mr. McLoughlin) who, like the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Mrs. Browning), raised issues relating to the Post Office. Hon. Members on both sides of the House share their enthusiasm for the Post Office, but it should be pointed out that the closure of 3,500 post offices under Tory Governments is not a record of which those Governments should be proud.

At a time when the market is changing, the Labour Government are trying to help the Post Office to adapt. Investing £480 million in computerisation of the post office network is a step forward, and those of us who represent rural communities consider important the ring-fenced £270 million to invest in rural networks support. Both measures are important means of ensuring that key parts of our communities survive. As other hon. Members have said, there are issues relating to urban post offices, especially in disadvantaged communities, and some of that money has been set aside to ensure that those post offices survive.

The hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton voiced her opinion, without quoting much evidence, of the Government's intentions regarding the universal postal service. In all the statements made in the House it has been made clear that that service is important and should remain—indeed, the Postal Services Act 2000 created the independent regulator whose very function is to ensure that the universal postal service continues. I joined those Members of Parliament who criticised the regulator for being too keen to promote competition rather than to stand up for businesses in the sector. I believe that the regulator's No. 1 role should be to protect the universal postal service, and thanks to the pressure exerted by Members of Parliament and others we are in the process of impressing on the regulator that that should be its No. 1 goal. That is what the Government also want to achieve.

No one could doubt that the Government have throughout all their work borne in mind the continuation of the universal postal system. To voice doubt about that is unfairly to increase anxiety in the population—just as the hon. Lady did when she spoke about people on low incomes having to pay £1.50 to cash a cheque. The hon. Lady misunderstands the proposals made by the Government and the Post Office for the post office card account, which is for people who do not want a bank account but want to continue to collect their pension or benefits in cash. That account allows them to do so. There is nothing in the proposals about a £1.50 charge on the payments, and when hon. Members start to say things like that, fears are raised unnecessarily in the general population, especially in the more vulnerable groups.

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome): All of us want the post office card account to succeed, but is the hon. Lady confident that it will be up and running in time for April 2003, which is when, under new legislation,

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credits will have to start being paid through our sub-post offices? The contracts were only let in November, prior to which no preparatory work had been done. Is she confident that the machines will be in place, people will have been trained and the migration policy will be settled by April 2003?

Ms Drown: I am confident that the House can ensure that our constituents are able to get their pensions and benefits. We must ensure that the Government and the Post Office deliver that. There is no question but that that has to happen, and we can all play a role in ensuring that it does. To voice fears unnecessarily simply increases fear among the most vulnerable members of our population.

Recently, we have spent much time discussing international affairs. That has produced a significant response in my constituency postbag, and I shall take this opportunity to summarise that response for the House. One of the most positive responses has been to the Export Control Bill, which has been widely welcomed as a huge step forward in ensuring that Britain behaves responsibly in its international trade. As the Bill passed through both Houses, I witnessed a most constructive dialogue between Back Benchers and the Government to ensure that the best Bill possible was produced.

I am especially pleased that, with other hon. Members, I helped to ensure that the Government included in the Bill provisions making sustainable development a key criterion by which exports are judged. I hope that dialogue will continue and that there will be further improvements to the Bill, particularly the inclusion of a ban on offshore brokering, before it completes its passage through the House.

There is a wider issue about balancing our responsibilities to the defence industry, British jobs and exports against our international responsibility to promote peace and security. One does not need a degree in economics or marketing to realise that if our foreign and international development policy of conflict prevention is successful, that will lead to a decline in defence sales. However, the Government do not seem to have anticipated that outcome; sensible work is still not being done on defence diversification. My constituents are suspicious that, as the second largest player in defence sales, we are partly responsible for fuelling some conflicts by giving Governments and rebel movements the ammunition to fight, rather than discuss a solution. If we expect our policies to be successful, and if we hope to create a better world with less conflict, should we not do something to get the most talented people in the defence industry into more productive sectors of the economy?

I shall give two specific examples. First, my constituents are concerned that Ministers have spent Government time promoting to India and Pakistan the sale of Hawk jets, which could be used in conflict between those countries. The Government have also promoted the sale of a military air traffic control system to Tanzania—there are deep suspicions that that technology is both out of date and exceeds Tanzania's needs. Money spent on that system could be spent on health and education, which are more important for Tanzania, given the stark facts of life there: 45 per cent. of the population do not have access to essential drugs, and 160 of every 1,000 children

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die before the age of five. The statistics are getting worse, not better—at the beginning of the 1990s, 140 of every 1,000 children died before the age of five.

Those stark figures demonstrate the need to use our international aid budget to try to reverse that awful trend. My constituents welcome the Government's initiative to increase overseas aid and the commitment of the Chancellor and the Secretary of State for International Development to that goal. We should try to reach the United Nations target of spending 0.7 per cent. of our national output on aid as soon as possible. There is still a long way to go, but huge steps have been taken. In our diplomatic engagements, we should encourage others to follow suit, notably the United States, which has spent a pathetically small proportion of its budget on aid. Indeed, even after the recent increase of $5 billion, which will come into force in 2004, it will not spend even 0.2 per cent. of its national output on international aid.

Last week, we heard about a further increase at Monterrey but, given America's influence in the world, it is inexcusable that it is not spending more on aid. I hope that the Government will use their influence to get the United States to make a commitment to the target of 0.7 per cent. and deliver on it as soon as possible. Our society increasingly recognises that international aid is not just a moral duty but is in our interest. We need to make it clear to civil society in America that aid is about promoting peace and stability as well as creating more markets for our products and services in future.

My constituents have two further anxieties about international development. First, they are seriously concerned about possible military action in Iraq. They appreciate the fact that there are appalling human rights abuses in Iraq, that Iraq poses a threat to its neighbouring countries and that it is flagrantly ignoring UN resolutions, but they are also concerned about the situation in the middle east and our involvement in Afghanistan, and do not feel that now is the right time for the UK and the USA to embark in isolation on further military action. They urge that we should use the coalition built up to tackle terrorism to keep the pressure on Iraq and introduce via international institutions new UN resolutions to take action. They also want the international coalition to take more action against Mugabe and the problems in Zimbabwe.

Finally on international issues, I have spoken in the House on a number of occasions about the need for Britain to take a lead on the problem of child soldiers. There is no justification for sending children into conflict, yet our Government have still not fully signed up to the UN optional protocol on child soldiers. There is no reason why we could not have a separate training organisation for 16 or 17-year-olds who are interested in military service. Only when they reach adulthood at 18 should they join our military personnel. Until such an arrangement is made, we cannot be sure that we will not send 17-year-olds into conflict. I hope that the Parliamentary Secretary can raise that with the relevant Ministers. I should like an assurance that there will not be any 17-year-olds among the troops who, it was recently announced, are to be sent to Afghanistan. I trust that no 17-year-olds will be sent into that conflict.

Briefly, on domestic issues, my constituents' primary concern is funding for public services, which is especially relevant in the light of the forthcoming Budget. Concerns about health, social services and education regularly

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appear in my postbag. I accept that the Government have taken major steps to deal with all those issues, but people are still waiting too long for treatment in the health service and too long for social services.

There is a particular educational issue worrying my constituents. Like the constituents of a number of other Members, they believe that the existing funding formula cannot be justified. Swindon is the lowest-funded unitary authority and is among the six lowest-funded education authorities, although the standards achieved by its students do not justify that low funding. There are huge disparities across the board: some authorities have hundreds of pounds more per pupil, even though those children achieve higher standards. That cannot be allowed to continue. I am pleased that the Government are reviewing the formula, as a new one needs to be put in place as soon as possible. It needs to be simple so that people can understand the figures, and it must increase the funds of the lowest-funded authorities like Swindon borough council. I have received that message loud and clear from my constituents. I can guarantee to the Government that more money for Swindon will be well spent in raising the standards achieved by my constituents' children.

I hope for good news about that in the forthcoming Budget which, I hope, will also deal with another concern raised by a number of my constituents—restrictions on the working families tax credit. At the moment, that credit provides a huge amount of help for many of my constituents, rewarding them for the first time for being in work. However some of my constituents, particularly those who do shift work, have a problem: they want to employ nannies to cover them at night, rather than use child minders or nurseries, which are not as flexible. I understand that the Government have been looking at that and I hope that we will get good news in the Budget so that more people will have access to the working families tax credit.

Before I conclude, I should like to raise with the Parliamentary Secretary my concern about how we make decisions in the House, and the speed with which we do so. A year ago, I requested that we e-mail oral and written questions to save the time involved in running to and from the Table Office. That issue has still not been resolved.

Two years ago, we asked for a revision of the rule about breastfeeding in the House of Commons. We have made progress on that. After our request two years ago, the previous Speaker—having referred the matter neither to the House nor to any relevant professional organisation—changed the sensible ruling allowing breastfeeding in Committees subject to the approval of the Chair, and simply banned it. The present Speaker has gone about this in exactly the right way, ensuring that professional organisations are approached and referring the issue to the Select Committee on Public Administration.

Given that all professional organisations consulted said that breastfeeding should be allowed in Committees, given the Select Committee's view that it should be allowed and given that Members are in favour of it by a ratio of three to one, it is odd that the ban continues. I am very pleased that the Speaker has said we have a responsibility to promote breastfeeding. He has been very accommodating, and I hope that further progress can be made in the near future.

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What worries me is this: if we cannot secure a decision on an issue like breastfeeding, which should be non-controversial, how can we get things right when it comes to other issues on which more finely balanced judgments must be made? How can we respond to criticism from our constituents who say that we constantly pass laws insisting that people note and act in accordance with the views of professional organisations if we are not doing that ourselves?

Some may say that this is not important. It is important. Parliament should be seen to be leading the way in regard to breastfeeding, which hugely benefits both mothers and babies. Throughout the world, 1.5 million babies die every year because of low breastfeeding rates. We all have constituents whose children are readmitted to hospital owing to infections, because our breastfeeding rate is one of the lowest in Europe.

There are less clear-cut issues on which our decisions should also be right. I congratulate the Leader of the House on what he has done about some of them. One is often raised with me by constituents: why, they ask, do we start work so late? Why do we not start until 2.30 pm? If we consider this to be a serious place of work, it is hard to answer that question. Why do we start at 2.30 pm? I agree with the Leader of the House that we should at least match Thursday's hours on Wednesdays.

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