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Because of his experience at the Home Office, my right hon. Friend will be aware of the issue of the entry clearance system for those wanting to come to the United Kingdom. I know from constituency cases, as he will, that although there has been improvement in the system, especially since the very welcome abolition of the primary purpose rule, there are still inconsistencies in how different posts approach different cases. I am sure that, with his constituency knowledge, he will be able to encourage best practice throughout the posts.
I hope that my right hon. Friend will also consider how to end the way in which less reputable so-called immigration advisers charge people for what is often useless advice, especially in the Indian sub-continent, but also here. Many people get ripped off and are charged for straightforward applications or, perhaps worse, for pursuing what are bound to be hopeless cases. We could do more to bear down on such practices.
The shadow Foreign Secretary touched on the issue of Kashmir. Many of my constituents have a close interest in what is happening there. Many families in Dewsbury have relatives who have been badly affected by the conflict. There are many Pakistani and Kashmiri families, but also many who have relatives in the Indian army. He acknowledged that we in Britain cannot solve the problem but, given our historic role, we can use our good offices to try to ensure that there is a dialogue and that we do not lose any opportunity to make progress, which looks possible at the moment. I hope that, if my right hon. Friend visits the Indian sub-continent, he will raise that issue whenever appropriate, as well as in international forums such as the United Nations.
Over the past couple of days, I have listened to a great deal of the debate on the Queen's Speech and I have been tempted to intervene on several occasions, not least when modernisation of the House, programming and the role of Back Benchers have been discussed. My contributions on that will have to wait for another occasion, or I will speak at too great length and not get the chance to touch on the other subject that I want to mention today: the improvement in public services, which was an important part of our election manifesto and is one of the reasons why we were re-elected with such a significant majority.
However, there is still a great deal to do, as we acknowledged at the election and as my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Skills recognised yesterday. We have rightly said that we will focus on secondary education. It is important that we maintain that momentum, because we must reform and improve individual schools. It is also important for us to maintain a cohesive schools system, as that is the best way of providing real opportunity for every child.
My right hon. Friend yesterday announced an expansion in specialist and beacon schools, and assured the House that it would not lead to a two-tier system. It is vital for us to ensure that it does not do so. That can be achieved by encouraging specialist schools to look outwards and to co-operate with other schools in their areas, rather than to set themselves apart. I am sure that that is possible and that we can build--and, in some areas, rebuild--the community of schools that is necessary to improve the life chances of every child.
My right hon. Friend also mentioned yesterday the important review that she has initiated in respect of the AS-level examinations that were introduced this year. I declare an interest in those examinations, as I have two teenage children, one of whom has just completed A-levels in the traditional way. The other has just completed AS-level examinations. I must say at the outset that the one who did the conventional A-levels wishes that he could have taken the AS-levels, while the one who is doing AS-levels thinks that far too much work is involved, so it is clear that we cannot please all of the people all of the time. My right hon. Friend was right to emphasise the need to broaden post-16 education. The moves that we made in introducing AS-levels were absolutely right, and it is important that we broaden that tier of education.
We have also introduced key skills for first-year sixth-form students, which means that there is an awful lot of work for those who are taking key skills as well as four and sometimes five AS-levels. We must revisit the question of how to ensure that the work load and examination timetable of those young people are appropriate. Many AS-level students have been examined at the end of the year, and not on the modular basis on which some conventional A-levels are currently taken.
I hope that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will ensure that young people who have taken AS-level examinations this year and who will include the results in their forms for the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service in September or October are not disadvantaged. That could happen if their results for the new examinations are there for all to see, but are not as good as their competitors' predicted A-level grades. Such students may, of course, be competing with youngsters who have not taken AS-level examinations, as some schools and colleges have chosen not to adopt them. We must ensure
We must turn our minds also to the improvements that we could make in AS-levels and post-16 education generally. I think that we should be open-minded about the scope for introducing a credit-accumulation system for examinations, and perhaps about considering the whole 14-to-19 curriculum, not only the 16-to-19 curriculum. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State was very positive yesterday in expressing her support for a broad curriculum. I hope that that support will be maintained by the Government, not least because we are now introducing vocational GCSEs. We must ensure parity of esteem for those qualifications, so that they are not seen merely as a qualification that is intended for people who are less academic and will not pass other examinations.
The Government set out an ambitious programme in the Queen's Speech, and it is on the delivery of that programme that we will be judged in the next four years. I believe that if we maintain our pace and direction, especially in issues such as education, we will not only have justified the confidence that people placed in us in the election on 7 June, but have laid the foundation for significant improvements in our education system that will improve the life chances of every child who passes through that system, as well as the economic prosperity of this country. On that basis, we will be laying the foundations for another victory by a Labour Government in four years' time.
Mr. Menzies Campbell (North-East Fife): In the spirit of the day, may I begin by offering my congratulations to the new members of the foreign affairs and defence teams, who are assembled today? I should also like to offer my congratulations to those who have survived the cut--a golfing analogy that my fellow Fife Member of Parliament, the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, the hon. Member for Kirkcaldy (Dr. Moonie), who has been restored to the Ministry of Defence, will no doubt understand and appreciate.
When the Minister for Europe was moved from the Foreign Office shortly before the election, I wrote to him to say how sorry I was and to express the hope that he would soon be back. That prediction has proved entirely accurate, but my prediction about the Foreign Secretary whom he might serve was not as well blessed. None the less, I welcome the Foreign Secretary to his responsibilities. He spoke in his opening remarks about the symmetry of the Foreign Office, but I thought that I may have misheard him, and he was talking about the cemetery of the Foreign Office. I am certain that I was wrong; it would have been a rather pessimistic note to strike in his first contribution in his new office to debate in the House of Commons.
I should like to put on record my appreciation of the right hon. Gentleman's predecessor as Foreign Secretary. I do not want to get into partisan exchanges about his achievements or otherwise. I want simply to say this: throughout his occupation of the high and important office
I hope that the new regime will not shrink from the ethical dimension. Some time during the previous Parliament, even if the words "ethical dimension" were not replaced, the words "constructive engagement" were suggested as an alternative. I want to suggest that those terms are not mutually inconsistent. I was critical of the Government with regard to the red-carpet treatment that they handed out to Mr. Putin at a time when, in my view, the conduct of the Russians in Chechnya fell a long way below what was justified. It would have been possible to engage with Mr. Putin on issues of common importance, such as European security, while saying all the time, "As long as your record on human rights in Chechnya is so abysmal, you cannot expect to receive all the benefits of a full engagement." To some extent, the Government sold that pass, and one now has to ask what advantage was gained.
There has already been some reference to human rights. I believe that we have an ethical or moral obligation to help others to attain the human rights that we insist upon for ourselves. As the shadow Foreign Secretary hinted, such an attitude is beneficial also to the national interests of the United Kingdom, because repressive Governments who systematically violate the rights of their citizens are more likely to use illegitimate methods in the conduct of international affairs. Countries that promote strong civil liberties are much more likely to provide a conducive environment for business, economic development, investment and trade.
It is no accident that the European Union is based not merely on economic advantage and opportunity, but on an acceptance of democratic values and civil liberties. At least one of the candidate countries anxious to join the EU--Turkey--knows that its chances of being allowed to join depend on a far greater recognition of human rights and civil liberties, and that if it does not attain those standards its chances of accession will be substantially diminished, however economically compatible it may be with the EU.
I suspect that Europe will dominate our debates on foreign affairs for some time to come. I cannot forbear to mention the neat juxtaposition that has brought together the shadow Foreign Secretary and the shadow Defence Secretary, and I am sorry that neither is in his place at the moment. The shadow Foreign Secretary is the man who signed the Maastricht treaty and the shadow Defence Secretary is a man who voted against it. There is talk in the Tory party about the need for a broad church, but I doubt whether the church could be much broader than the now deserted Tory Front Bench.
The Government can count on the support of the Liberal Democrats in the legislation necessary to ensure the swift ratification of the treaty of Nice. The treaty sets out changes to the institutional framework of the EU that will be necessary for enlargement to be successfully undertaken. It is technically possible to enlarge without
In his speech, the shadow Foreign Secretary made no reference to the issue of qualified majority voting. That was perhaps well advised, because more than half of the extensions to QMV refer to technical portions of the treaty dealing with appointments, rules of procedure and the management of the European Parliament, its committees and courts. That is hardly a case for a referendum. Notably, the shadow Foreign Secretary did not repeat the call for a referendum on the Nice treaty, which was previously part of the Conservatives' position. Perhaps it has been excised from the website, like their manifesto, and should no longer be mentioned.
A further four articles in which QMV is to be extended refer to areas in which Britain opted out--again, no case for a referendum there. The remaining 10 extensions are in areas such as anti-discrimination practice, support for industry, priorities for structural funds and environmental measures. Those do not seem to be of such constitutional importance as to require a referendum. The case for a referendum was not made at the Dispatch Box today by the Opposition and they may, at last, have realised that such a case cannot be successfully argued if one considers the precise terms of the treaty.
Accompanying swift ratification of the treaty by the UK must be an acceptance on both sides of the House that the EU needs to undertake a serious round of reform. It must concentrate its energies on what it does best and not on trying to influence every legislative area of national competence. It should stay clear of areas in which its writ is unnecessary. The intergovernmental conference in 2004 should be used to establish a clear and precise delimitation of competencies between the EU and the nation states on which it relies for its legitimacy.
What we are talking about--I do not shrink from the expression--is a constitution for Europe. It is only through being clear and open about its structures and ambitions that the EU can hope to retain the support of the people of Europe. It is only then that the people of Europe will be comfortable with the institutions that are designed to represent them. We need to know in clear and simple language what the EU can do and what it cannot.
The single currency was the dog that did not bark in the Queen's Speech. As Sherlock Holmes might have observed, it was all the more significant for that, but there have been developments. We are now to adopt a position that is described as one of pro-euro realism. If that is to be the rallying cry, it is unlikely to stir the blood. I cannot envisage the people of Dunfermline, East taking to the streets to chant, "We are the pro-euro realists." Indeed, the Minister for Europe has been quoted as saying that it is necessary to "cool it" when discussing the single currency. Taken together with pro-euro realism, that
The five tests are couched in economic language, but they are in substance political. If the Chancellor of the Exchequer came to the Dispatch Box tomorrow and said that all the tests had been met, who would dare to correct him? Joining the single currency is both constitutional and political in its implications, and not simply economic. It is those constitutional and political implications that are the justification for a referendum. If it were simply a matter of economic management, no referendum would be necessary. If it is a political decision, there is an overwhelming need to make the case now, instead of waiting for the relatively restricted period of a referendum campaign. The Liberal Democrats propose to take every opportunity that we can to make the political case for Britain's membership of the single currency, and we would be happy to join in common cause with all who wish to do the same--especially those members of the Conservative party independent enough to reject the five-year principle.
This debate embraces defence, and I welcome back the Secretary of State for Defence and thank him for all the courtesy he displayed to me in the previous Parliament. Such is the cornucopia of talent now available to the Liberal Democrats that I shall not have the pleasure of shadowing him in future. He will be shadowed very effectively by my hon. Friend the Member for Hereford (Mr. Keetch).
I had already read in the papers--and this morning I heard it on the "Today" programme, so it must be true--that the Defence Secretary is to announce the Government's commitment to the two aircraft carriers. I hope that that is so, because the carriers lie at the heart of the expeditionary strategy on which the strategic defence review is based. He will recall that the Liberal Democrats supported that strategy and the conclusions of the defence review, and we will certainly support any announcement he makes that embodies a commitment to the two carriers. Without them, the expeditionary strategy would be sunk. We will need to find the funds to provide the carriers, because if we were not to do so, we would need to embark on a further defence review.