HL Deb 11 June 2003 vol 649 cc187-92

Baroness Rendell of Babergh asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether creationism is being taught in schools.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Education and Skills (Baroness Ashton of Upholland)

My Lords, pupils are encouraged to explore different views, theories and beliefs in many national curriculum subjects, including science and religious education. All state-funded schools, including those governed by funding agreements with the Secretary of State, such as academies and city technology colleges, are required to provide a broad and balanced curriculum to their pupils and to teach the core subjects of the national curriculum, including science.

Baroness Rendell of Babergh

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend for her Answer. Would she agree that creationism and natural selection should not be taught as equally faith-based, but that the creationism of Genesis, albeit an ancient and beautiful tradition, should be taught as an allegory and evolution as science-based? Would she also agree that pupils should never be tested on the faith-based theory of creationism as part of the science syllabus?

Baroness Ashton of Upholland

My Lords, on the latter point, the science curriculum at key stage 4—that is, for 14 to 16 year-olds—is tested on evolution as part of science. In key stage 3 of the RE curriculum there is a unit—it is unit 9B, for those who might he interested—entitled "Where did the universe come from?" I am in the middle of Bill Bryson's exposé of that subject at the moment. The unit considers the issues of science and religion and the perception of conflict between them. The overarching point is that within the national curriculum we are very clear about what we expect to be taught, but we have always allowed schools to teach beyond the national curriculum.

The Lord Bishop of Portsmouth

My Lords, these Benches have a great deal of sympathy with the concerns expressed in the Question asked by the noble Baroness. Would the Government agree that the time is right to investigate the possibility of a nationally agreed RE syllabus along the lines of a certain recent ecumenical initiative?

Baroness Ashton of Upholland

My Lords, as the right reverend Prelate knows, some discussions are taking place. I know that he will be involved in further discussions with my right honourable friend the Secretary of State on the question of an RE syllabus. It may be worth saying to the right reverend Prelate that there are different views about that, not least from the SACREs in different localities, many of which feel it is appropriate to have a locally based curriculum.

Lord Taverne

My Lords, if the Government are to allow the teaching of creationism, will they also allow the teaching of pre-Copernican astronomy, that the earth is flat and that the sun goes round the earth?

Baroness Ashton of Upholland

My Lords, the noble Lord should reflect on the basis on which a Secretary of State and a Government must act in determining what elements of faith should or should not be allowed in an education system. When the noble Lord reflects on that, he will recognise that our responsibility is to ensure that children receive a broad and balanced curriculum, are taught the national curriculum, are regularly inspected and that we ensure that children and young people get the opportunity to explore theories and beliefs.

Lord Campbell of Croy

My Lords, are the theories of Charles Darwin included in such teaching, notably on the origin of species and the survival of the fittest?

Baroness Ashton of Upholland

My Lords, as I have already indicated, within the science curriculum we ensure at key stages 3 and 4 that children and young people have the opportunity to explore the different theories of creation and evolution. I have also made it clear on which they are tested.

Lord Tanlaw

My Lords, I declare an interest as the chairman of the All-Party Astronomy and Space Environment Group. This Question has a very deep relevance. In America, there has been a complete mixture and muddle between religion and science. In the lovely prayer with which the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Sheffield opened today's proceedings, he made reference to the four corners of the earth. Most of us would agree that the earth is not flat, and that should not be taught as a literal scientific lesson. The same goes for Genesis I; it is astro-physically totally unsound to believe that the earth was formed before the stars. It is very dangerous that those thoughts can be transmitted to young people via the educational system, as they are in America.

Baroness Ashton of Upholland

My Lords, I am very impressed by the noble Lord's credentials in this area. The only school in which the issue was raised was written to, and discussions took place with the Chief Inspector of Schools, who was completely satisfied that the school was acting correctly in the presentation of the science curriculum. There are no other indications that at other schools it has even been raised as an issue.

Lord Peston

My Lords, does my noble friend accept that the Secretary of State does have some responsibility if nonsense is taught in our schools? Will she comment on my discovery that, in a school that is not a religious school, children as young as six are being taught that the world is full of evil due to the existence of Satan? When that was put to me by my grandchild, I said, "Well, that's rubbish". He said, "No, it's not—my teacher told me".

Baroness Ashton of Upholland

My Lords, the noble Lord makes an important point; namely, in the course of the education of all children, as noble Lords will know from their own experience, views are expressed by individual teachers. The difficulty and difference for a government is to ensure that children get the best possible curriculum, and, within that, that we do not censure, if I may describe it as such, what is a widely held belief for many people. It is important, as noble Lords have said, to make sure that within the science curriculum we are clear about what we are teaching. The only case raised has been investigated. We also need to be clear that we have a broad-based faith society and we should recognise and celebrate it.

Lord Campbell of Alloway

My Lords, will the Minister kindly explain to the uninitiated what on earth creationism is?

Baroness Ashton of Upholland

My Lords, I may not be the best person to do so, but I shall make an attempt. Essentially, creationism is based on the teachings of the Bible. It is based on the idea that the earth was created after the stars, by having a timeline that suggests, as I understand it, that the earth is only several thousand years old.

Baroness Sharp of Guildford

My Lords, given that the ideas of Darwin are generally regarded by many scientists as the greatest break-through in science in the past couple of hundred years, will the Minister assure the House that in those schools where creationism is taught the children are also exposed to the full science curriculum and that they understand the ideas of Darwin and evolution?

Baroness Ashton of Upholland

My Lords, as I believe I have indicated, there is only one school where this has been raised as an issue. The Chief Inspector of Schools was satisfied that within the curriculum the young people were indeed exposed at key stage 4 to the appropriate theories mentioned by the noble Baroness. Underneath your Lordships' questions are issues as to whether we should be concerned about this matter. Perhaps I may quote the Vardy Foundation, which is thinking of opening another school. It has said: Other faiths will also be taught and students encouraged to come to their own personal decisions about what to believe and why". I think that noble Lords will agree that that is an appropriate statement.

The Lord Privy Seal (Lord Williams of Mostyn)

My Lords, I am afraid that we are well over time.

Mr James Miller: Israeli Shooting Inquiry

2.45 p.m.

Lord Waddington

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper. In doing so, I should tell the House that James Miller was known to me, being the brother of my daughter-in-law.

The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government whether they have obtained from the Government of Israel an acknowledgement of responsibility for the shooting of Mr James Miller, cameraman and director, by a soldier of the Israeli army on 2nd May.

The Minister for Trade (Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean)

My Lords, the Israeli Government have acknowledged responsibility for Mr Miller's death, but the Israeli defence force's inquiry into the full circumstances of this tragic case is still under way. My right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary raised the case on 8th and 15th May with the Israeli Foreign Minister and is writing to Mr Shalom following the recent meeting with Mr Miller's family on 2nd June. We are pressing for a full and transparent Israeli military police investigation and a written apology.

Lord Waddington

My Lords, I thank the Minister for her reply. I also thank the Foreign Secretary for his courtesy in seeing the family. However, have not the Israeli Government failed to put in train the full and transparent investigation asked for by the British Government? Is not the so-called command inquiry likely to end in the kind of cover-up that has followed other shootings such as that of Ian Hook, the UN worker, in Jenin? Is it not already plain that the tale originally told—that James was shot in the back having been caught in cross-fire—was completely false? The bullet entered the front of his neck. The film of another camera crew shows that the firing was coming from Israeli troops alone, and James was killed when he and his companions were wearing helmets with "TV" on them and carrying white flags and shouting that they were British journalists. When the British Government are giving all possible support to the Israeli Government in their fight against terrorism, are they not entitled to expect in return a proper investigation to establish responsibility for this crime and redress for the family of a British citizen unlawfully killed?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, I agree with the noble Lord's last point. We are pressing for a full and transparent inquiry, as I hope I made clear in my original Answer. I thank the noble Lord for his remark about the Foreign Secretary. Obviously, we need to wait for the findings of the Israeli defence force inquiry when it publishes its report into the full circumstances surrounding what I am sure all noble Lords will acknowledge is a desperately sad case. But it is very difficult to establish exactly what happened. The noble Lord referred to some conflicting reports about the exact circumstances. This incident took place late at night. It is important that we do everything we can to establish the full circumstances. I know that my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary will be writing to James Miller's widow within the next couple of days.

Lord Alton of Liverpool

My Lords, will the Minister underline to the Israeli authorities that there is widespread support for the remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Waddington, in many parts of this House and outside it? Does she agree that, not only in the case of Ian Hook but also in that of Tom Hurndall, internal inquiries were perceived to be partial and were not seen as dispassionate or objective? Great cynicism was expressed subsequently about their findings. Does the Minister agree that the transparency she mentioned and the independence of such an inquiry in investigating the case of James Miller are paramount?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, I shall ensure that these exchanges are drawn to the attention of the Israeli authorities. The noble Lord refers to two other tragic cases. We are very concerned about civilian casualties resulting from Israeli operations. By "civilian" I mean both civilians who are indigenous to the area and those who go in to investigate what is happening. We urge the Israelis to do everything they can to ensure that civilian casualties are avoided and that their actions always fall within international law. Given the number of recent incidents, to which the noble Lord, Lord Alton, referred, we have asked, through Mr Shalom, to establish whether anything can be done about revising the rules of engagement for the Israeli defence forces so that they can do their best to avoid these tragic and terrible incidents.

Lord Redesdale

My Lords, what timescale do the Government believe will be involved for the internal inquiry to come to its conclusion? Most of the work already appears to have been done, including a comprehensive autopsy. Are the Government raising the very real concerns about indiscipline inside the Israeli defence force, which led to so many of these incidents?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, I am not able to give a timescale. It is important, when trying to establish exactly what happened in such an incident, that any inquiries are exhaustive. As we heard from the noble Lord, Lord Waddington, versions of what happened on that terrible night have already changed during the course of some of the inquiries so far. It is important to ensure that that is properly dealt with. As to what the noble Lord, Lord Redesdale, referred to as indiscipline, I hope that I made clear that we have expressed our concern to the Israeli Government about the rules of engagement. The noble Lord will understand what I mean when I say that the rules of engagement are a matter of concern to Her Majesty's Government.

Baroness Rawlings

My Lords, we join others in extending our sympathies to James Miller's family and relations following his tragic death. What further advice and recommendations will Her Majesty's Government give to journalists, including cameramen, to help to protect their safety when working in areas of conflict?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, I am sure that all noble Lords wish to send their sympathy to James Miller's widow and two young children. We advise that everyone going into the area looks very carefully indeed at the travel advice that the Foreign Office issues. I understand that although some individuals know that the travel advice is unequivocal in advising against travel to the West Bank and Gaza, they none the less feel that they have a very strong reason to go. A number of peace workers and journalists are there. We advise them, as the travel advice states, that if they feel they really must be there, they must take every possible precaution against getting into situations in which there may be cross-fire or flash points of violent incidents. As we know, there have been several fatal attacks. All of that is made very clear in the Foreign Office travel advice.

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