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Mr. Kelvin Hopkins (Luton, North): I want to send one clear message to my hon. Friend the Minister. I commend the Government for at last taking seriously our national weakness in education and training. I think that they have got the message that we have a problem, which they are addressing. It is instructive to examine how we used to deceive ourselves about how well we were doing. We have a talent for national self-deception in our ability to, for example, play football or run railways. We are not good at it, but we think we are. We thought that we were good at education, but we were not.
When Professors Sig Prais and Claus Moser of the National Institute of Economic and Social Research conducted research in the 1980s, they gave 30 electrical apprentices from France and 30 from Britain a simple mathematics test. The French apprentices got all the sums right and the British apprentices got all the sums wrong. There was an enormous difference. A subsequent comparison of kitchen manufacturers was featured in a television documentary. Workers on the shop floor in Germany could calculate, measure and produce a bespoke kitchen from a plan in English. In Britain, the equivalent workers could assembly standardised units and no more. The comparisons were stark. We deceived ourselves then, but things are getting better and I like to think that we will not deceive ourselves in the future.
One of the differences between Germany, France and Britain in those days was the rigour of the teaching. The classroom pedagogy was endless hours of rigorous mathematics. That is difficult and unpopular, but it is necessary. If one is to succeed in such things, one must do mathematics. I used to teach economics and statistics at A-level. One of the basic problems was that the youngsters I taught were not numerate. Many of them did not have good English either. Those problems are being addressed and that will come through in the future.
Mr. Ivan Lewis: With the permission of the House, I shall do my best to respond to the contributions, but it is unlikely that I will get through them all. If that is the case, I shall write to those hon. Members whom I do not mention.
The hon. Member for Daventry (Mr. Boswell) made the valid point that we must not simply have a collection of existing initiatives and that we need a step change in our approach to skills. He made the Conservative party's proposal on higher education a big part of his contribution. Its policy will deny universities the significant income that they need and cap the aspirations of many young people. When the announcement was made, we heard that the money would be used to invest in vocational education and training, the implication being that money for university
My hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton (Linda Gilroy) made an extremely good point about the positive contribution of trade unions. They have been incredibly effective, especially in respect of the trade union learning fund and the individual learning account intermediary. This is a good opportunity to pay tribute to the work of John Monks at the TUC, who adopted a progressive and positive view of skills. He will soon move on to his new job and I have every confidence that Brendon Barber will adopt a similar approach.
The hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Mr. Willis) said far too many nice things about my political future. Many people do not know that my in-laws are voters in his constituency, which may influence what he says to me because his seat is so marginal. They have admitted to voting for him from time to time. He made valid points about the importance of the ILA successor scheme, and I agree with him. He said that funding and other organisational arrangements might have a negative effect on the 14 to 16 flexible work-related learning pilots. Those are being evaluated and evidence is emerging about a positive college-school relationship. We will present that evidence to the House.
The hon. Gentleman set five tests for the skills strategy. I expect us to meet all of them with one exceptionthe provision of finite resources without regard for the financial consequences. No member of the Liberal Democrat Treasury team was in the Chamber to influence his comments. He wants us to fund everything for everyone without regard to the financial consequences. That is why he is such a good Liberal Democrat.
My hon. Friend the Member for Huddersfield (Mr. Sheerman) will no doubt hold me to account for the skills strategy. He was cynical about our capacity to deliver it in June. We are going to deliver it in June. However, I am not cynical about his capacity to hold me and other Ministers to account on the skills agenda.
My hon. Friend the Member for Eltham (Clive Efford) rightly cited examples of good practice in his constituencyGreenacres primary school, Alderwood school, and the work that Greenwich community college and Charlton Athletic are doing. Linking children's education to adult learning is a means of tackling intergenerational underperformance and deprivation. If my hon. Friend can raise aspirations in his communities and get adults learning alongside kids, that is in the best interest of our creating a lifelong learning culture and society and doing something about intergenerational
Mr. Bill Wiggin (Leominster): The Office of Fair Trading has recommended to the Government proposals that would allow the unrestricted opening of pharmacies able to dispense NHS prescriptions. If the proposals were accepted, many local pharmacies such as Scott's pharmacy of 35 High street, Bromyard, and the Westfield Walk pharmacy, may well be at risk. That could mean that instead of prescriptions being dispensed just a walk away, they would have to be dispensed at a supermarket pharmacy or at an out-of-town shopping centre. I am grateful to Mrs. Janice Lucas, who has collected more than 2,000 signatures, including those relating to the Leominster pharmacy.
And your Petitioners remain, etc.
Mr. Desmond Swayne (New Forest, West): I have come to the House to speak on behalf of my constituent, Mr. George Atkinson, whose birthday, incidentally, it is tomorrow, and who will have spent six years, two months and 15 days in prison in Dubai. He is our longest-serving prisoner in the middle east region. I know that not from the answer that I received from the Minister on 5 March at column 1070W, because he chose to withhold the information on the grounds that it was privilegedon the grounds of privacy; I know it because I was told it by Fair Trials Abroad.
I owe the House an explanation, because I have raised the matter before. I raised it in Adjournment debates in the House on 12 June 1998 and on 13 January 1999. In those debates I concentrated on my conviction that Mr. Atkinson's conviction was entirely unsound and unjust, and my concern about his arbitrary detention. But that is all water under the bridge. What I owe to the House now is an explanation of why I have been silent these four years. Having raised the matter twice, why have I been silent for so long?
I have been silent because Ministers told me to shut up. I distinctly remember being given that message clearly by Ministers at meetings"Be quiet, Mr. Swayne. Leave it all to us. Keep quiet about it, and we'll fix it." We were promised as a quid pro quo for not raising the matter, for not asking parliamentary questions, and for not raising it in the House and outside, that we would be provided with a package of support. People may raise their eyebrows, but I distinctly remember Baroness Symons promising that we would be provided with expertise from the Arabists to assist us in framing the right approaches to the right people. We got nothing. As a consequence of my silence, Mr. Atkinson's release date has come and gone, but I shall return to that shortly.
As I have been silent for so long, I shall briefly update the House about two events that have taken place in the intervening period. First, those who study these matters may recalland if they check the record they will findthat Mr. Atkinson was convicted largely on the evidence of one Steven Trutch. That evidence was supplied to the court in Dubai by affidavits, so Mr. Atkinson's lawyers were unable to cross-examine him. Since I raised the matter in the House, Steven Trutch has been convicted and imprisoned in this country for swearing false affidavits. I think that that thoroughly undermines Mr. Atkinson's conviction.
Equallyit was shameful that I was silent about this, but I stuck with the advice that I was given by the MinisterI was silent when, last year, Mr. Atkinson was taken from his cell and savagely beaten. I asked the Minister about the matter only recently, and he replied on 3 April:
As a consequence of the opinion that Mr. Atkinson had been arbitrarily detainedthis is the only time when the Foreign Office acted with any spunk, if that is a permissible term, during the entire processthe Government presented to the Government of Dubai a note verbale. I recently made an inquiry of the Minister about the note verbale and I received an answer on 12 May. I had asked him what happened and
The question arises about whether that remission for good behaviour is discretionary or mandatory. Professor Ballantyne says that article 44 of the relevant law is absolutely clear. Only two conditions have to be metpublic safety and good behaviour, for which the Arabic term is "mugim", which literally means "going straight". It is mandatory for all prisoners to have that relief if those two conditions are met.
The Attorney-General in Dubai argues that an extra six months must be served owing to the non-payment of a fine. Professor Ballantyne has considered that issue, too. Article 302 of the relevant law provides for the maximum of an additional six months, but it is not automaticit must be the result of a formal process that is properly initiated and notified. The professor concludes that as there was no such notice or formal
Ministers have told me throughout this business that they cannot interfere and have referred me to the interpretation of the law by our legal representatives. The difficulty in dealing with the authorities in Dubai is that they will not respond. On 10 July last year, the Attorney-General wrote to Mr. Atkinson's legal advisers in these ringing terms: "This correspondence is at a close: we are not interested any more." For 10 months, we have had no communications because they simply do not reply; they do not deal; they are not prepared to talk. It is no good the Foreign Office saying, "You've got to talk to legal representatives and sort it out with them", if the other side will not respond.
Ministers cling to the idea that we cannot interfere, must not get involved, and can do only what is proper in consular terms. That is a load of nonsense, because we do it all the time. I recall that when there was an outrage in Yemen in which a number of British subjects were rounded up, the next day the Secretary of State came to the House and told us that he had been on the phone to his counterpart in Yemen. We continually make representations on behalf of people in prison in Morocco, Yemen and Saudi Arabia. Gary Onions came back on 9 May as a result of such action. Why has Mr. Atkinson been left behind? Why should not he have a fair deal? He was a businessman who paid his taxes: why is he not getting the benefit of the protection of the British authorities?
Dubaiand the United Arab Emirates, of which it forms partis a friendly nation. We do an enormous amount of trade with Dubai. There are not only formal trading links but a huge amount of social intercourse between our nations. A formal and an informal network could be exploited. Why has that not happened?
During the six years in which Mr. Atkinson has languished in a foreign jail, how many ministerial visits have been made to Dubai? How many times did Ministers raise Mr. Atkinson's case with their counterparts, as I urged them to do through faxes to their offices whenever I discovered that they were going to Dubai?